LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It’s become inevitable. Ever since Tiger Woods returned from a back surgery layoff in late June, every solid round he has played — usually early in tournaments he has entered — has been followed by a slew of optimistic press and whispers of, “Is he back?”

He hasn’t been close to back. The best that can be said for Woods in his little more than a month back on tour is that he was playing pain-free. He seemed to be encouraged by that, even as he acknowledged that he wasn’t putting four good rounds together and that he didn’t yet have his “feel” for shot-making back.

Now, it appears, even the feel-good element is gone. Woods withdrew from the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, today, describing lower back pain after taking a bad step on the second hole. He tried to play through it, but withdrew after grimacing with pain on No. 9.

As he loaded his clubs into a sport utility vehicle, Woods told a PGA Tour official, “Happened on the second hole when I hit my second shot. I fell back into the bunker. Just jarred it. It's been spasming ever since."

Woods said the soreness was in his “whole lower back.” When asked what it meant for this week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he is paired with Phil Mickelson in a return to the site of his 2000 PGA Championship victory, Woods said, “I don’t know. Just trying to get out of here.”

Woods hasn’t been a dangerous player since his return a month ago. He’s played a few good rounds. But he has weakened over the course of tournaments. Despite being a fan favorite to win the PGA Championship this week — a ludicrous notion looking at his form since his return — he wasn’t a major threat this week.

But seeing him play without pain was encouraging. And what impressed me as much as anything was that he seemed encouraged even when the results might not have shown improvement.

He was showing patience, I thought, playing the game, enjoying being pain-free, and working himself back into shape.

Now, all that is gone. The fear of any athlete coming off a major injury, as he is, often is that they’ve re-injured themselves and must go back to square one. Often, however, that isn’t the case.

For Tiger’s sake, here’s hoping that he just tweaked something, and that he’s not taken a major step back physically. Most athletes after sustaining what appears to be a re-injury will overreact a little. It’s not uncommon. In some ways, the precaution is a natural instinct, and usually a proper one. There was no reason for Tiger to keep playing with pain today. Is it possible he packed it in, figuring there was no reason to keep wearing himself out when he had no chance? Perhaps.

But the frustration he showed after the second-hole injury today wasn’t the first he has showed lately. He screamed at photographers during the first round of the British Open when cameras started clicking mid-swing. He went on to shoot a 69 that day. Maybe he needs to yell at photographers more often. Of course, he also hit a spectator in the head in the same round.

On Saturday he snapped at photographers in Akron, saying, "Can you guys give me a little ---- space?"

He’s all over the place on the course. He was three-over for Sunday’s round before withdrawing, and trailed leader Sergio Garcia by 15 strokes heading into the final day, having not birdied a par-5 in two days. He’s coming off his worst finish ever at a major — 69th in the British Open.

ESPN Stats and Info
Tweeted Sunday that in a dozen years, from 1996 to 2008, Woods missed a cut or withdrew only six times in more than 200 starts. Since 2009, that number has grown to 11 missed cuts or withdrawals in 79 official events.

Woods has not scored better than 70 during the weekend of a major since the 2011 Masters.

I’m not saying Woods is finished. I am saying he has a lot to prove before he’s considered a major contender again.

I’ve always said, I’ll resume conversation of Woods regarding Jack Nicklaus’ record for majors when he wins another one.

And I’ll resume conversation of him winning another one when he manages to contend for another one.

After today’s withdrawal, it appears that might still be a ways off — whether he shows up in Louisville or not.

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