Tiger Woods' withdrawal with a back pain after just 11 holes of the Farmers Insurance Open set off fresh alarm bells about his future in the game. But amid all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the former world No 1 at Torrey Pines, Pádraig Harrington shot an encouraging 69 as Shane Lowry got his 2015 season off to a mixed start.
Harrington played the easier North Course, where Woods was two over par when he hit his tee shot on the par-three 12th and opted not to bother putting. But while Woods had come back rom two over after two to level par after 10 before making a double on 11 following a bad drive and three poor chips, Harrington got better as the round went on and posted a three under 69 worth an early share of 17th place before play was suspended due to darkness.
Having covered the front nine in three under par with birdies at the second, fifth and ninth, Harrington three putted the 10th and 11th before making three birdies and a bogey from the 14th followed by a par-five at the last.
Lowry, meanwhile, laboured on the South Course and was three over par with three holes to play having followed a bogey at the fourth with a sloppy, three-putt double bogey six from around 16 feet at the fifth.
A three-putt from 20 yards at the par-five sixth was forgivable but after missing birdie chances at the eighth and ninth to turn in 39, Lowry bogeyed the 12th after finding rough off the tee but got that shot back with a sand save at the 13th.
Lowry's rustiness was to be expected in his first start of the season, especially on lightning quick greens and he can still claw back a shot or two in the three holes he has remaining in his opening round.
As for Woods, his immediate future is uncertain after yet another setback.
Woods, who was grouped with Billy Horschel and Rickie Fowler, was in the third threesome off the 10th tee. The start of his round was delayed two and a half hours because of patchy fog. He said his back started to tighten up as he stood on the practice green in the cool, moist air, waiting for updates.
Woods described the onset of the tightness as “my glutes shutting off and then they don’t activate and, hence, it goes into my lower back.”
Before he walked off the course, Woods bore little resemblance to the player who had won this tournament seven times. He hit loose iron shots and more mediocre chip shots. One of the few highlights was a chip-in on his second hole, leading several fans in his gallery to exult, “Tiger’s back!”
Yes, Tiger’s back became the story of the day — just not in that way. The grimaces became more pronounced as he got deeper into his round, and Woods was not the only one wearing a pained look. Many of his fans had a hard time watching him miss the first four greens and hit only one of nine fairways.
“He toughed it out a lot more than anyone else,” Horschel said, adding: “He’s a fighter. He wants to get the reps in. He wants to play well, and he kept trying to play through it, hoping that it would loosen up.”
That his latest withdrawal came at Torrey Pines, of all places, was a sad co-incidence, as Fox Sports' Robert Lusetich reminded us, of the US Open he won on one leg there in 2008.
It was torturous to watch him butcher his 11th hole of the day — a short par-4, which required just a pitch shot for a second from the right rough.
Woods' first pitch was so yippy that he bladed the ball over not just the green but also the galleries on the other side. His next attempt at a flop was chunked, and then came the half-skulled third that left him with a two-putt for double-bogey.
And then there are the wayward drives, most of them wide right. Woods hit just one of nine fairways on Thursday. To boot, the irons were sloppy and it's not like the putter saves him, like it once did.
It's unlikely he will play either at Riviera — imagine his chipping struggles on that unforgiving kikuyu grass — or Pebble Beach. He's simply not ready for the big stage.
He likely will play next at the Honda Classic in Florida, which starts Feb. 26, but that course is hardly ideal for Woods given the number of water hazards.
And there will be more pressure on him to play well there because it will be his last chance to qualify for the World Golf Championships Cadillac Championship at Doral.
If he doesn't play Doral, Woods could be looking at just one more tournament — at the usually friendly confines of Bay Hill — before the Masters.
He insists he wants to be ready for the Masters, but frankly, he is in denial. His body, his mind and his game are far from ready.
The immediate future looks bleak for Woods, as this compilation of reactions gathered by Geoff Shackelford illustrates.