JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Tiger Woods looks like a guy who hasn't played much golf. Not tournament golf, which has been widely documented. Any golf.
And that's not good.
After a summer of indifference that included just four tournaments, two missed cuts, a lengthy overseas vacation and some lingering back issues, Woods figured to be ready to go for a three-week sprint in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Instead, he could not have looked less sharp on Thursday during the opening round of the Northern Trust at Liberty National. Good thing spectators were not allowed onto the grounds early in the morning, because there was certainly nothing to witness with Woods, who shot 4-over-par 75 and appears headed for another weekend off.
The back stiffness that limited him during Wednesday's pro-am has been an issue at every tournament Woods has played since the Masters, and it seems to be going beyond the "new normal'' that Woods professes, venturing into troubling territory, where it's fair to wonder if there is more going on than stated.
If so, if there is some sort of new problem or something related to the spinal fusion surgery from 2017 that saved his career, Woods should shut it down, get those problems addressed and not worry about golf for the next few months.
While that may sound dramatic, remember we're talking about a man who less than three years ago simply craved a better quality of life, who yearned to have play days with his kids, and who had little reason to believe his golf career would be revitalized.
Now, following a miracle return that included two more victories and a 15th major title, Woods does not need to sweat the small stuff, however lucrative the FedEx Cup playoffs might be, however much pressure is being applied to play in Japan in October and as a captain at the Presidents Cup in Australia in December.
Woods may ultimately be fine and simply working through the various physical problems that are now part of his life at age 43. If so, that beats the more serious alternatives. But that also suggests he has his good days, and those have been rare in his public golf the last few months and makes you wonder how much time he has been putting in at home.
"It's a little bit stiff, but that's just how it's going to be,'' Woods said Thursday.
And yet, at least from the outside, Woods does not appear to be making the smart decisions that might make his golf life easier. Why fly overnight to The Open last month, arriving in the early hours at Royal Portrush right off the plane, to practice? With his own jet, Woods can fly when he wants, get the proper rest and treatment, and make sure he prepares and warms up properly. From the moment Woods set foot in Northern Ireland, he never looked right.
This week, Woods arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and soon was playing a practice round with Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, trying to launch his drives with the longest hitters on tour. He barely warmed up, had just come from the plane, and rushed to get in putting practice before heading to a planned Presidents Cup dinner that lasted well into the evening. Then there was the quick turnaround to Wednesday's 7 a.m. pro-am time, and again he struggled.
There is another curious development that has seemingly had more impact of late. For several years, Woods had a physical trainer who traveled with him, a South Florida-based therapist who had been on site at a majority of tournaments, and presumably worked with Woods at home. He stopped traveling with the golfer last year and hasn't been out with him at all in 2019. Could there be any correlation?
Life has been a blur for Woods since winning the Masters, a victory that he admitted "took a lot'' out of him and left him unprepared for the PGA Championship in May. There was some good golf in a tie for ninth at the Memorial, then a late rally in cool conditions to tie for 21st at the U.S. Open. A two-week vacation to Thailand kept him from playing any competitive golf, and then came another poor performance at The Open, where cool, damp conditions at Royal Portrush did him no favors.
"I'm going to take a couple of weeks off and get ready for the playoffs,'' he said before departing.
But how much time did he spend getting ready? Woods undoubtedly played and practiced the last two weeks, but the amount and intensity is unknown. Woods is seemingly in a spot where he is balancing rest and recuperation with the need to practice, and the former is beating the latter 9&8. Perhaps that is necessary, but it's not a model for competitiveness.
A few examples from Thursday suggest a lack of practice. Short approach shots to the 12th, 14th and 17th holes all led to bogeys, as did a misfire after a perfect drive at the ninth hole. The scoring clubs, some version of a wedge from 140 yards and in, are letting him down, giving pause to the idea that there is more going on with his back than he is saying.
Throughout his injury ordeals, Woods has acknowledged that the short shots are the most bothersome. To practice them requires more bending at the waist and more pressure on the area that makes him most uncomfortable. That's why Woods can bomb a 300-yard tee shot with a driver -- which he did several times Thursday -- and then miss a green from 120 yards.
It also speaks to some of the putting woes he has had all year. Woods ranks 56th in strokes gained putting but is 163rd in putts per round and 190th in three-putt avoidance. He had a crushing three-putt at the third hole, a sloppy one at that, an error that is increasingly more difficult to overcome.
"I was just trying to feel it, trying to find it, and then could never get it,'' Woods said, later adding, "I was off. I was trying to feel it, find it, and could not quite get a sense of the feel of the bottom [of the irons]. It was definitely off, and hence my distance control was off.''
And yet, everything has been off. Since the Masters, Woods has shot just two rounds in the 60s, only six under par. He has typically gotten off to slow starts, making it more difficult to continue playing conservative, which is his preference. Any ability to build momentum has been thwarted by inactivity or physical issues, hardly a way to beat the best in the world.
Playing in the heat and humidity of the New York area was supposed to help. So was the notion that he'd be playing consecutive weeks for the first time in six months with the BMW Championship at Medinah coming up.
Is being unable to stand over a ball and make the proper motion worse than just going through the motions? It's difficult to tell at the moment.