By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Tiger Woods' withdrawal from last week's Dubai Desert Classic due to back spasms has cast a lengthening shadow over his return to competition, leaving at least one expert to conclude his brilliant career is now drawing to a premature close.
While manager Mark Steinberg downplayed the withdrawal, saying Woods had a "back spasm", sports injury expert Selene Parekh says the player "should be very concerned" that he had to make an early departure from the Middle East event.
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Comfortably the greatest player of his generation and arguably the best of all time, Woods was a creaking shadow of his former self in Dubai, struggling to a five-over 77 in the opening round before pulling out of the tournament the following day.
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The Dubai event had been inked in as the second of four he was scheduled to play in a five-week span as part of his proposed build-up to the first major of the year, the April 6-9 Masters, but those plans are now very much up in the air.
Woods has played just three tournaments since returning to competition in December after an absence of nearly 16 months, finishing 15th out of 18 at the Hero World Challenge, missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open and exiting Dubai after just one round. Though Woods mixed flashes of the brilliance for which he was once renowned with some rusty and often erratic play at the Hero event in the Bahamas, the brightest sign there was that he appeared healthy.
In Dubai, however, Woods looked stiff and all too often his gait and revamped swing were slow and ungainly. Golf Channel analyst and former PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee said he looked like "the oldest 41-year-old man in the history of the game".
For a man who endured two back surgeries in late 2015 before taking an extended break from the game to recover, these most recent developments are far from promising.
"It's not the nerve pain that has kept him out for so long, it's a back spasm," Woods' manager Mark Steinberg said after the 14-times major champion withdrew from Dubai. "The fact that he feels that it's not the nerve pain, that's very encouraging for him. He's had spasms before."
Sports injury expert Parekh, a professor of surgery in the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has a contrasting view of a player now ranked 674th in the world.
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"Tiger should be very concerned,” Parekh, who has not worked with Woods, told Reuters. "I know the Woods team has said this is not related to his prior surgeries but they’ve said that before and it was always related to his prior back issues.
"I'm very concerned hearing that so soon after returning to the course he's having issues. He's had over 500 days of rest and recovery to get back on to the course this year and already he has symptoms.
"This is just taking it down further towards the end of his career, until he realizes he has to retire."
While Woods has worked hard to revamp his swing in a bid to ease pressure on his back, Parekh believes one of two scenarios will unfold – both with a negative result. "Either you resort back to your old swing, which puts pressure back on the problematic areas, or you change your swing enough that you have symptoms in other areas where you’re not used to having that kind of torque built into them," said Parekh.
Former world number one David Duval, who endured his own rankings freefall as he struggled with his golf swing and multiple injuries, says Woods must resolve three issues before he returns to competition.
"There's a physical component to what's going on with his body, a mechanical component with his golf swing and a mental/emotional component ... frankly a lack of any confidence in what he's doing," Duval said in his role as a Golf Channel analyst.
"Mechanically, he could be better. Physically, that's a question mark. It took me a long, long time to kind of fight through that, and it will take him time.
"But he's got to get those three things straight, and he should, before he puts a peg in the ground in a competitive situation again."
Woods is next scheduled to play in the Feb. 16-19 Genesis Open in Los Angeles, followed by the Feb. 23-26 Honda Classic in Florida. Nothing is now certain.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in St. Augustine, Florida; Editing by Andrew Both)