Tiger Woods may be well into the back nine of his career -- or even skulled his last chip over a green in competition -- but if the aftermath of his withdrawal from the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open was any indication, his successors have a ways to go to fill the obvious void his eventual retirement will leave.
And that has nothing to do with talent, as the fading rock star with the horrific short game can’t keep up with the likes of Billy Horschel or Rickie Fowler at this point. No, it’s all about the excitement -- and paying customers -- Woods ignites by his very presence, however diminished, at a PGA Tour venue.
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"Me and Rickie, we got on No. 3 tee and we sort of joked," Horschel, Woods’ and Fowler’s playing partner on Thursday, said after a day that included the all-too-familiar scene of Woods removing his shoes in the parking lot before driving away mid-round. "We saw Curt Byrum [of Golf Channel] leave and all the cameras. Then we saw all these media people scamper away towards him. We said, ‘how many people will stay with us?’ and we said ‘about 50,’ and that was about true.
Tiger Woods is drawing more interest in the parking lot than someone with a prime space at the mall at Christmas pic.twitter.com/N7Uk04spnE— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) February 5, 2015
"So we went from 600, 700 people watching us to 50, so we became chopped liver," Horschel quipped. "We realized where we stand in this game of golf and we had a good joke about it."
Woods, who blamed a fog-delayed stop-and-start day for tightness in his lower back -- what he termed, much to the delight of Twitter -- "glutes deactivating" -- called it quits after hitting a tee shot on the par-3 third, his 12th hole of the day. The threesome’s original tee time was pushed back and fog put them in a holding pattern a second time as well.
Woods returned in June after surgery but was gone again after missing the cut at the PGA Championship in August. When he shook hands with Fowler and Horschel on Thursday, he had completed just 47 holes in 2015 in his latest comeback marked by a career-worst 82 and a missed cut a week ago at the Phoenix Open.
While he could laugh about the fans decamping, what wasn’t funny for the reigning FedEx Cup champ who, now notoriously, helped Woods with his short game on Wednesday, was watching his boyhood idol in pain.
"It made [his even-par 72 day] a little bit tougher to see someone that I looked up to for quite awhile and someone I consider a friend having an issue with his back spasms again," said Horschel, who believes the 39-year-old Woods has a few shots left in his bag before he hangs it up.
"It's very unfortunate, I think he's doing a lot of good things in his game," he said. "I think he's not that far off, considering where everyone else is thinking. But from my eye I feel like he's really close to playing well; it's just a matter of getting some reps and staying healthy so he can work on his game still."
Horschel, who picked up the tees for the ailing golfer who could barely bend down without wincing, said he noticed Woods begin to labor starting on the 11th hole -- the trio’s second of the day.
"I asked him when I walked off 12 tee, ‘back hurting again?’ Horschel said. "He said, ‘spasms.’"
Anyone questioning Woods’ fortitude was way out of line, in Horschel’s view.
"He toughed it out a lot more than anyone else, than any other playing competitor," he said. "They would have dropped off earlier, but he's a fighter, he wants to get the reps in, he wants to play well, and he kept trying to play through it, hoping that it would loosen up."
Cameras captured the three players sitting and waiting to tee off on the first hole after they made the turn, after which things really went south for Woods.