He winced when he would bend over to pick up his tee. He walked down the fairway like a man twice his age. He rarely crouched to read a putt. He looked rigid and brittle, owning none of the willowy flexibility that had so brilliantly defined his game during the early years of his career.
It was clear something was bothering Tiger Woods physically during the opening round of last week's Dubai Desert Classic. Forget the final result -- a birdie-free, 5 over 77 that was even uglier than it sounds. The simple eyeball test proved to anyone watching that Woods wasn't feeling quite right.
It doesn't take much deductive reasoning to assume that the player who took a 16-month leave of absence from the game after three back surgeries, the one who was still in recovery and rehabilitation mode, the one who'd just played a tournament the week before then traveled halfway around the world to play this one, just might be the victim of some lingering back pain.
When he finished the round, though, Woods was asked about what seemed so painfully obvious -- emphasis on painfully. He didn't just resist the insinuation, though. He denied it.
"No," he said. "I wasn't in any pain at all."
These types of denials have become a hallmark of Woods' postround interview sessions. When he can't hit a fairway off the tee, he insists he's close. When he doesn't make any putts, he maintains he's still putting well. And when he's obviously injured, he won't admit it.
Let's be clear: That's absolutely his prerogative. In a noncontact sport like golf, where opponents can't take advantage of a player's injury weakness, being coy about this strategy doesn't seem to offer much leverage.
It does make sense, though. Woods sees himself as more athlete than golfer. This is a guy who wanted to be a Navy SEAL. He views toughness as a birthright and believes admitting pain is a sign of weakness.
All of that is understandable. Commendable, even.
But here's where it gets tricky: When Woods withdraws from the tournament in Dubai one day after denying he was in any pain, that self-assessment loses some credibility. And when his agent declares that Woods' withdrawal was due to back spasms that are unrelated to those three previous microdiscectomy surgeries, it becomes impossible to decipher where the truth ends and the denials begin.
In an announcement Friday on his personal website that he'd miss his next two scheduled starts, Woods again maintained that "ongoing back spasms" are the reason, never allowing that his current physical issues may, in fact, be a direct result of those previous physical issues.
It's because of Woods' unending secrecy in these matters that we can view his latest news with a heavy dose of reasonable doubt.
For as little as Woods has admitted about injuries in the past, there's no certainty that he's suddenly drunk the truth serum and is being completely candid about his current status.
Once again, that's all right. He doesn't owe it to anyone to be transparent with his physical limitations. But it does let us process this latest news with a discerning eye. Using a little more of that deductive reasoning, we can plausibly conclude the following: Woods took a full 16 months away from the game in order to return as healthy as possible; he returned and soon injured himself again; the injury is in the same part of the body as his previous one; if 16 months wasn't enough to allow him to recover, then he might never be able to consistently play at a competitive level again.
Woods' long-standing refusal to offer real-time analysis of his status -- unlike, say, young stars Rory McIlroy and Jason Day -- leaves the door wide open for theories and suppositions about his future. We should be skeptical, even cynical, about the possibility that Woods could return for next month's Arnold Palmer Invitational. Or, more important, the upcoming Masters Tournament.
Maybe "ongoing back spasms" really just are ongoing back spasms. Maybe they're completely unrelated to his previous back injuries; maybe he'll receive treatment and heal up quickly.
We're allowed to hold out some doubt. Just because he says it's one thing doesn't mean it isn't something else. After years of reticence when it comes to speaking about his injuries, we shouldn't assume that Woods' current ailments aren't connected to those previous ones, painting a much different picture of his long-term physical condition.