Woods' return hits speed bump

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Golf, especially good golf, was supposed to take care of everything. It would help dull the pain of the past few months, enable us to move away from scandal and back to sports.

But nobody predicted Tiger Woods playing bad golf would be part of the equation.

And certainly nobody forecast a neck injury adding more negativity.

Woods withdrew just seven holes into the final round of the Players Championship on Sunday, and suddenly his grand comeback is just as murky as it was the day he stood at the podium here in February at the TPC Sawgrass to acknowledge his indiscretions for the first time in front of the world.

A bulging disk, as Woods suggested it could be, is serious stuff. Even if it's just a sore neck, this is an area of the body not to be messed with, especially for a golfer who hits hundreds upon hundreds of practice balls, with a jarring sensation moving through the hands, arms, shoulders and neck every time.

Given all the issues Woods has had in recent years with his left knee -- and the acknowledgement at the Masters that he had dealt with Achilles issues -- the neck problem came out of nowhere.

Then again, on April 5, the day he held his first post-scandal news conference at Augusta National, Woods was asked about the injuries that sent him to the hospital as a result of the Nov. 27 one-car crash outside his home.

"Yeah, I had a busted-up lip and a pretty sore neck, and that was it," he said.

Who knows if the neck issue is related, but it is certainly a fair question.

Reporters did not get to query Woods after he withdrew. He spent some time in the locker room before visiting the tour's fitness trailer, where he spent more than 30 minutes. A PGA Tour official was able to talk to Woods, who revealed that "I've been playing with a bad neck for quite awhile. ... I've been playing through it. I can't play through it anymore."

Woods had given no hints about any trouble. Not at the Masters (other than mentioning the sore neck as a result of the accident). Not at the Quail Hollow Championship. And not here.

In fact, after his second round on Friday, it appeared that Woods was limping. It might have just been due to a long day in the hot sun and a case of sore feet. But I asked Woods: How's your knee?

"Knee's good."

Any issues at all?

"No, zero. Absolutely 100 percent."

What about the Achilles, does that bother you anymore?

"No, I started back running again. Haven't had any swelling. I still feel I'm still explosive in all my exercises I'm able to do now, which I wasn't doing any of that last year. So it feels good."

Does any of that bother you from a golf practice standpoint?

"Last year it did, last year it did, yeah. Last year I didn't practice as much because I couldn't. The Achilles wouldn't allow me to."

OK, so that brief conversation during a media session dealt specifically with his knee and Achilles. But when asked if he had any issues at all, Woods responded no. It would have been an opportunity to disclose the neck problems, but he declined to do so.

Maybe he thought it would go away, but two days later, Woods was saying, "I'm having a hard time with the pain. There's a tingling down my fingers."

Woods was 2 over par for his round and had hit just a single fairway through seven holes. A day prior, it seemed odd that he was at the bottom of the field in driving distance on the measured holes and 65th out of 70 players overall. Given the knowledge we have now, did the neck issues contribute to shorter, crooked drives?

"Tiger doesn't make excuses, but I know it has been bothering him," said Hank Haney, Woods' swing coach, who has not been at TPC Sawgrass this week. "I don't know how bad. Tiger is a tough guy. He played the U.S. Open on a broken leg. So when he says something is bothering him, it's probably not real good."

Woods is still scheduled to attend a media day on Monday for the AT&T National tournament at Aronimink Golf Club outside of Philadelphia.

Perhaps that session will provide more answers, such as how long his neck has been bothering him and whether he has any sort of prognosis.

But for just the third time in his pro career, Woods has withdrawn from a tournament. It is the first time he has ever played back-to-back events without finishing in the money.

Even in a best-case scenario, you would expect the doctors to prescribe rest for Woods so as not to make the situation worse. For what it's worth, Players Championship winner Tim Clark missed time during the 2007 season with a pinched nerve in his neck, but still managed to make 19 starts.

From a golf standpoint, the last thing Woods needs right now is more time away from his clubs. He had said on Saturday that he requires more competition before the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach next month. "There is no doubt I need more. And I certainly will get it," he said.

Where? Woods didn't figure to play in any of the next three events in Texas anyway, leaving the Memorial Tournament -- where he is the defending champion starting June 3 -- as his next most likely start. Whether three weeks is enough time to heal and practice is very much in doubt.

And that makes a return to golf glory -- something both Woods and the game desperately needed -- far from imminent.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.