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Tiger Woods' latest back injury threatens to end season, derail career

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It's too early to know the severity of Tiger Woods' latest back injury, but suffering it so soon after returning from surgery is a bad sign for the world's most recognizable golfer.

Gregory Shamus

On a weekend when one of the most talented young PGA players in the world took a leave of absence following a positive cocaine test and a perfect final Rory-Sergio Sunday pairing headlined one of its premiere events, the golf world is back to rotating around Tiger Woods' health.

The Injury

Woods departed Akron nine holes early on Sunday afternoon, withdrawing due to some sort of back injury. We don't yet know what the injury is or how severe it is, just that it's in his lower back. We're quick to draw conclusions that it's the same injury that has bothered him all year, and for which he had surgery at the end of March, wiping out most of his summer.

But until we hear more from Tiger, I don't think we should assume that it's the same injury that prompted a microdiscectomy operation. This could be a one-off strain or pulled muscle. Tiger raced off the course and directly to his courtesy car, but not before PGA Tour media officials were able to get a quote. He said the injury occurred on the second hole, where he stood awkwardly over a bunker and tried to pop one up the fairway.

Tiger said he "jarred" his back at some point during the swing and landing back down in the bunker, and that he suffered spasms for the rest of the round. When asked if it was the exact same issue he's dealt with for the past year, he just said, "It was the whole lower back."

Tiger's lost season

Following that aggravation at the second hole, he played on at Firestone but hit an array of ugly and embarrassing shots, spraying the ball all over Akron. On the third hole, he tried to cut the ball in a situation that so clearly called for a draw, and left his approach well short and in the water. At the par-3 fifth hole, he chunked a tee shot some 65 yards short of the green. This came just three days after he completely fanned a par-3 tee shot about 42 yards short of the target. Tiger's driver is always unpredictable, but this front nine was especially wild. After that chunk at the 5th, he sent his drive a mile right on the 6th, the ball finally settling near a beer tent.

Tiger's game is not in good shape, but this was a special brand of ugly. Finally, at the 9th, we got some official confirmation in the same manner we've now seen throughout the past year. Tiger swung, grimaced, and struggled to bend over and pick up his tee. At that point, you knew he was done.

And that was it. It's the same scene from the Barclays last August, when we first saw signs of back trouble out on the course.

tiger

It's also the same scene from the Presidents Cup last October, and the Honda Classic and Doral this March.

tiger

Woods struggled to take off his shoes in the parking lot, and spent his brief interview with that PGA Tour official leaning awkwardly against his car. Still decked out in his Sunday red and black, he also reportedly struggled just to go up the steps to get on his private plane.

The PGA Championship

With the way he labored getting off the course and taking his shoes off, the assumption is Woods' season is over. It was nearly over before this injury. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was likely going to be the first of his final two weeks on the 2014 PGA Tour. His game is not sharp but with medical clearance, he wanted to get more competitive reps and at least open up the chance of putting a run together in Akron and at the PGA. But he needed a minor miracle to earn enough points in two weeks just to play on in the FedExCup.

The presumption is his season is over, but with the FedExCup almost certainly out of the picture, he could show up at Valhalla next week and try to give it a go. He might think he can get hot for week and then take the next six months off. If the back doesn't hold up, then just withdraw again and rest up for the winter. We'll probably get clarification from Tiger within the next 24 hours, but I'm not sure we should automatically assume he won't play the season's final major.

The Ryder Cup

The list of health issues since 2008 is long, but the back injury is the most serious threat to completely derailing his career.

Just days after Tom Watson lost Dustin Johnson, perhaps the most talented American in the world, he's also now likely lost Woods, the most accomplished American in the world. A healthy Tiger should almost always be a lock for a Ryder Cup spot, whether it's on points qualification or as a captain's pick. But Watson said he needed to see Tiger back healthy, and back playing good golf. Now he's fulfilled neither since his return at the end of June.

The golf has been particularly spotty, making the choice and decision more difficult, especially with Woods likely missing the FedExCup and multiple other chances to show his form. Now in addition to poor performance, he's injured again, and that should make Watson's decision pretty easy. Tiger may make it for him and take himself out of it in the next week. Even if he gives the PGA a try, the Ryder Cup seems like a remote possibility. Losing Woods and Dustin in the span of three days likely means Phil Mickelson, who's also not in the top nine in the points standings, is a probable captain's pick.

Long term

I wrote on Thursday before he teed off that Tiger was starting a 10-day stretch with a longshot chance to save a lost year. Now following another back injury in just his third start since his return, we're thinking beyond this season and for the long term. The list of health issues since 2008 is long, but the back injury is the most serious threat to completely derailing his career.

WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

In addition to Tiger's health, more back trouble will only heighten the scrutiny on swing coach Sean Foley. Tiger's coach is always the most famous coach in golf. But the pressure for that swing, and by extension the instructor, to deliver major championships is totally unique. Since the Foley overhaul, Tiger has not won a major. The health problems have also persisted. When he came back from surgery, we were told that Foley and Tiger worked on some things and made some minor tweaks to put less pressure on the back. Foley is already getting some blame for redesigning a swing that caused the original back injury, and now didn't adjust to inhibit another one. Fair or not, he's going to catch some heat and Tiger may re-examine their professional arrangement.

Back at Doral in March, he called injuries to the back "no joke" and differentiated the back trouble from his knee injury, which "hurt like hell" but didn't affect his swing and where the ball was going the same way as his back injury. Whether it's the exact same back injury or not, having to withdraw because of more back trouble so soon after returning from surgery does present a different kind of danger to the rest of his career than all the other leg, neck and elbow issues he's encountered.