Injury clouds Tiger's comeback

Florida, May 9 (AFP) – Tiger Woods, hoping to find respite from his personal woes on the golf course, instead finds his comeback prospects clouded after injury forced him out of the Players Championship.

Woods returned to competition at the Masters last month in the wake of shocking revelations of marital infidelities that rocked his marriage and cost him some of the sponsors that made him the first billion-dollar sportsman.

An encouraging tie for fourth at Augusta National was followed last week by his failure to make the cut at the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Tiger Woods lines up his putt on the first green during the final round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. AFP photo

The latest blow came Sunday, when Woods withdrew on the seventh hole of the final round of the Players Championship complaining of neck pain.

He had pronounced himself "100 percent" fit prior to the tournament. But on Sunday he owned up.

"I've been playing with a bad neck for a while," Woods said. "I might have a bulging disk."

It was the first time as a professional that Woods had withdrawn from a tournament mid-round. As a 19-year-old amateur he withdrew from the 1995 US Open after hurting his wrist.

For the first time in his career, he finished outside the top 30 in consecutive tournaments.

Masters champ Phil Mickelson was unable to seize his chance to take the world number one ranking from Woods with a Players victory. But a prolonged injury absence would further jeopardize Woods' five-year reign.

"I'm having a hard time with the pain," said Woods, who in the past has been an iron man.

He won the 2008 US Open playing with a damaged left knee and two stress fractures in his leg.

Woods' description of his symptoms -- pain and tingling in his right fingers -- immediately provoked a welter of expert theorizing, including one explanation from a doctor on the ESPN sports network who demonstrated with a model of a human spine.

Reference to neck pain also recalled Woods' infamous November 27 car crash, which sent him to the hospital and heralded the start of a scandal in which more than a dozen women have said they had sex with the married father of two.

Woods' only prior public reference to a neck problem came at the Masters, when he listed a "busted-up lip and a pretty sore neck" as the only injuries he suffered in the mystery crash.

Whether the current problem is related to the accident is anybody's guess, but it will certainly fuel a fresh round of speculation now that Woods has become favorite fodder for tabloids and Internet celebrity gossip sites.

Golf fans will be hoping to hear soon just how serious the injury is, and how it might affect his schedule.

Woods wasn't expected to play the next three US PGA Tour events, but had been widely expected to defend his title at the Memorial tournament June 3-6 before tackling the US Open at Pebble Beach June 17-20.

Woods won the US Open the last time it was played at Pebble by a stunning 15 strokes.

He had said on Saturday that he needs more competitive rounds before the next major championship of the year.

"There is no doubt I need more," he said. "And I certainly will get it."

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