LOS ANGELES — Only moments into his pre-round practice session, hitting balls between Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson in his traditional Sunday red, it became clear that Tiger Woods was at Riviera Country Club in body but not spirit.
The possibility of a tournament title had been doused a day earlier, and the disclosure of back stiffness and overall lack of preparation meant a final round of going through the motions.
And when Woods spent more time chatting with other players and caddies on the range than he did actually hitting shots, it was clear that the idea of trying to find some momentum on the course in the final round of the Genesis Invitational was futile.
Woods was still not moving great. While he looked good at times, his overall game was a shell of what he produced three weeks ago at Torrey Pines, let alone in December at the Presidents Cup or October at the Zozo Championship.
This was simply a day to endure, not make matters worse — and then hand the tournament trophy to winner Adam Scott, who finished 22 strokes ahead of the tournament host.
And it was yet another reminder: Woods is 44 years old, has a fused spine, had three previous back surgeries prior to that, and counts himself lucky to be playing the game at all, let alone a high level.
“Considering the fact that I look at this part of my career really didn’t exist a few years ago, to be able to do that no matter what I shoot … it’s still disappointing, it’s still frustrating, I’m still a little ticked,” Woods said. “But I still look at it from a perspective which I didn’t do most of my career, that I’m going to have a chance to play going down the road. A few years ago that wasn’t the case.”
That’s why Woods could joke about hitting “every ball forward, not backwards,” in a round of 77 that left him last in the field among those who made the cut. That’s only the second time in his career he has done that, the other being during some of the worst of his struggles in 2015 when he finished last by eight shots at the Memorial.
And to think … Woods had two eagles in the tournament. He opened with 31 over his first nine holes. He was still only seven strokes back through 36 holes. And with warmer weather on the weekend, there was every reason to think he could at least make a game of it.
But as we came to learn, not everything was right with Woods this week. When he was vague about his plans for next week, I wrote that perhaps the Olympic golf tournament this summer was not as important to him. Why else would he skip the WGC-Mexico Championship, where a limited field, warm temperatures and a golf course that suited him — he tied for 10th last year — awaited him?
It appeared that he was foregoing a great opportunity, with a game suited to win or contend and at a place where numerous world ranking points would be available.
At the time, Woods was not saying anything about back stiffness and overall malaise this week. He arrived Monday for a charity six-hole golf outing in which he did not participate — nor did he hit any balls. Despite nice weather Tuesday, Woods fulfilled numerous media obligations and duties for his foundation and as host of the tournament, and then again didn’t practice.
Perhaps that should have been a sign that something was amiss — it was — but he looked fine in the pro-am on Wednesday and then had the hot start Thursday. Those 45-degree temperatures Friday didn’t help, and Woods said Sunday that was actually the worst he felt all week.
And so now that decision to skip this week’s World Golf Championship event makes more sense.
“The idea is to peak around Augusta time,” he said, and there is a good bit of restraint and good sense he is using these days in an effort to make sure he doesn’t make an uncomfortable situation worse.
Woods spoiled everyone again with his form of late, coming back from knee surgery to win the Zozo Championship, go 3-0 at the Presidents Cup and then tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open. The victory in Japan was particularly surprising, as expectations had been low following a summer plagued with issues that turned out to be related to his knee.
So when things aren’t feeling right, as was the case for Woods this week, it’s best to lower those expectations and accept it for what it is.
“His good is still the best,” said Brendon Todd, who played with Woods for the first time Sunday. “I don’t think his swing was as synced up as it normally is when he’s playing good. Maybe he’s in pain. I don’t know, but he didn’t share that. He’s trying to make sure that every time he tees it up he’s healthy. And that’s what he should do.”
J.J. Spaun, who also played with Woods for the first time, marveled at how gracious he was despite playing poorly.
“I know when I’m playing like crap, it’s tough to talk to anybody,” Spaun said. “He couldn’t have been nicer, more personable. I know he was struggling with his putting. But he smoked a couple of drives and his chipping was unbelievable. The guy scares the hole every time.
“The body is the biggest thing we have. And it’s important that it is 100 percent, if you can even get it there, to be able to compete. Props to him for grinding it out.”
It’s debatable whether that was really the case. Woods played the last six holes in five over par. He hit only eight greens for the day, and several times he came up short. His 77 was one of his three worst scores since his return from the spinal fusion surgery.
“That’s kind of a sign that he might have been hurting,” caddie Joe LaCava said. “That’s not normal for him. I’m not really concerned with the score, I just want him to be healthy. Because he’s certainly capable.”
Now what? While most of the top players in the world head to Mexico, Woods was headed home, looking forward to rest, recuperation and then training. It sounded as if serious golf work would wait, which probably — no guarantees — means he skips the Honda Classic at the end of this month.
That gives him two full weeks to get ready for the Arnold Palmer Invitational (which begins March 5), followed by the Players Championship. By then, he hopes to be as fit as possible, with the likelihood of a final tune-up at the WGC-Dell Match Play the final week of March before his title defense at the Masters.
And so Sunday simply became a day to endure, not make matters worse, look ahead to better times.