Golf
Bob Harig, ESPN Senior Writer 243d

Back stiffness limiting Tiger; 'best to be smart'

Golf, PGA Tour

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The memories for Tiger Woods at Liberty National are tainted with some tough moments, and he's not off to the greatest start this week for the beginning of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Woods spent most of the back nine of his pro-am round Wednesday just chipping and putting as he experienced stiffness and soreness during his early-morning warm-up session and did not want to take any chances prior to the start of the Northern Trust on Thursday.

"It's best to be smart about it,'' Woods said afterward. "This is kind how it is; some days I'm stiffer than others.''

And that continued a common refrain from Woods in his four tournament starts since winning the Masters in April.

He missed the cut at the PGA Championship, tied for ninth at the Memorial Tournament, tied for 21st at the U.S. Open and then missed the cut three weeks ago at The Open, where he never seemed to get on track in the cold weather.

Temperatures during the FedEx Cup playoffs will be considerably warmer, and that figures to help the 43-year-old Woods, who is nearly two full seasons into his comeback from spinal fusion surgery that rejuvenated his career and saw him capture his 80th PGA Tour title last September at the Tour Championship and his 15th major title at Augusta National.

But Woods has never looked completely right on a golf course since. All was fine during a nine-hole Tuesday practice round with Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Harold Varner. Woods then attended a dinner with players in the running to make the U.S. Presidents Cup team that he will captain in December.

"It was great,'' Woods said. "As I've said to you guys all year, this is how it is. Some days I'm stiffer than others. Yesterday I was out there hitting it great. Driving it out there with Brooksy and D.J. Today, I'm stiff. Hopefully I'm not that way [Thursday].''

A 7 a.m. pro-am time Wednesday was delayed 30 minutes by weather, and Woods didn't feel great warming up. He thought briefly about withdrawing from the pro-am, but he decided he was good enough to go and hit several good shots during the first nine holes before deciding to limit what he did over the back nine.

Woods finished second at Liberty National in 2009 at the tournament then known as the Barclays, missing a playoff by a shot. He was second to Adam Scott here in 2013, when he fell to the ground due to back pain after hitting a shot to the 13th hole during the final round.

That was one of the first instances of apparent back trouble for Woods, who less than a year later had the first of four back procedures that all but derailed his seasons from 2014 to '17. During that time, Woods played just 24 worldwide events, with four withdrawals and five missed cuts.

Then, two years ago, in one of his first public appearances following his back surgery in April 2017, Woods was an assistant captain for the U.S. Presidents Cup team at Liberty National and said in late September that he "did not know what my future holds'' as far as his golf career was concerned.

Woods returns to Liberty National this week ranked 28th in the standings for the FedEx Cup, which has been revamped this year with just three events. He is assured of playing in next week's BMW Championship, which is for the top 70 players. He likely needs one decent finish to assure himself a spot in the 30-player Tour Championship.

If he makes it to East Lake in Atlanta, it will be the first time he has played three straight tournaments since the playoff run last year in September. He has not played two straight events since he tied for 15th at the Genesis Open followed by a tie for 10th at the WGC-Mexico Championship in February.

"Yes, there is concern, hopefully because of the pressures I'm going to be facing, hopefully put myself in contention,'' he said. "That's why it gets difficult. If you're missing cuts, who cares. You're taking weekends off and a couple extra days of rest.

"But I'm trying to get myself where I'm in contention, where it takes a toll on you, and that's what I want to feel. I want to feel that type of tiredness, where I have a chance to win. That's a good feeling.''

Ever since winning the Masters, Woods seemed a lock to be a playing captain at the Presidents Cup in Australia, but hedged on that Wednesday, saying he is not a lock to pick himself.

The top eight in the points standings through next week's BMW Championship automatically qualify, with Woods getting four captain's picks that he will make on Nov. 4.

"I'm like all of them, all the guys in the room,'' Woods said, referring to the dinner with potential players on Tuesday. "Guys ... can still win these two events and hop into the top eight, or play well with the [fall] events that we have and get a pick.''

Woods begins the first round on Thursday with J.T. Poston, who won the Wydham Championship on Sunday, and Scott Piercy at 7:43 a.m.

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