By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; D03
NEWTOWN SQUARE, PA. -- Before last weekend, Tiger Woods was already in the midst of his most scrutinized professional season, one in which his private life was as likely to be analyzed as his life in public, one in which his results in golf tournaments -- good or bad -- could be linked by armchair psychologists to how well he was dealing with the tumult he's experiencing at home. Monday, though, Woods made clear that he's unsure how much of this season will be left to pick apart, because the neck injury that forced him to withdraw from the Players Championship is bothersome enough that he has no idea when he'll return to tournament play.
"A lot of that's still up in the air right now," Woods said. "It's not a place where I wanted it to be, no doubt."
And thus, the PGA Tour is back in the precarious position it found itself in when Woods took an indefinite leave of absence last December following revelations of a sex scandal -- without the one force that invariably drives television ratings and generates water-cooler talk. Normally, Woods said, he would like to play the Memorial on June 3-6 outside Columbus, Ohio -- where he won a year ago -- before playing the U.S. Open on June 17-20 at Pebble Beach, Calif., where he won the championship in 2000.
Now? He must get an MRI exam of the neck this week near his home in Windermere, Fla., before having even the faintest idea of how he'll proceed. He repeatedly called the situation "frustrating" and "annoying." He said the injury is more complicated than the massive leg problems that caused him to miss the second half of the 2008 season, because then he knew he needed surgery, and he knew he would be out. Monday, he sounded subdued, befuddled -- and cautious.
"This is a little bit different," Woods said. "This is an injury that I know it can get really bad. I've had numerous friends who have had injuries in their necks, and you just don't want to mess with this. . . .
"I want to practice. I want to play. I want to compete. But this is not allowing me to do the things that I need to do in the golf swing to hit the proper shots. I need to get where I can do that again."
Woods spoke at a news conference at Aronimink Golf Club to promote the AT&T National -- the tournament that benefits his foundation that is normally held at Congressional Country Club, but is spending two years here as the Bethesda club undergoes preparations to host the 2011 U.S. Open. Woods won last year's event at Congressional, and his appearance here was designed to introduce Woods to promote ticket sales for the event, which will be held July 1-4. Before the injury, Woods was supposed to hold a clinic for the assembled media and sponsors at the Donald Ross-designed course.
Instead, Woods spent almost the entirety of a 30-minute news conference discussing the specifics of his latest ailment, which is to the right side of his neck. He tried to make a few jokes -- saying the last time he felt 100 percent physically was "December, when I was 11" -- but his mood was generally somber. He pulled out on the seventh hole of the final round of the Players Championship not, he said, because of the pain.
"I can deal with the pain," he said. "But once it locked up, I couldn't move back or through, actually turn coming back or turn going through. Was it frustrating? Yeah. For me to not play all 18 holes, that was as angry and as frustrated as I've been in a long time."
Woods said he had previously treated the injury -- which first flared up about two weeks before the Masters -- with anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy. Though he said last month, when he made his return at the Masters, that he suffered a busted-up lip and a "pretty sore neck" in the Nov. 27 single-car accident that unleashed a torrent of revelations about his apparently rampant infidelity, Woods quickly dismissed the notion that the accident was related to his current problems.
"Zero connection," Woods said. "Absolutely zero. My neck started bothering me when I really started to practice a lot."
That practice, Woods said, might have been part of the problem. Woods's exile -- in which he spent time in therapy -- covered 4 1/2 months, and he said Monday that he might not have been prepared for an aggressive return to the practice range.
"I like to spend a lot of time working on my game," Woods said. "It's also one of the reasons why I think this thing flared up, is because I wasn't conditioned to it. I've been away from the game for such a long time, then came back and ramped up really quickly in order to try and play the Masters. My body wasn't quite ready for that."
There is, too, the matter of Woods's mind. The future of his marriage to Elin Nordegren is the subject of nearly daily tabloid speculation, and Woods has complained that it is impossible for his family to maintain any semblance of a normal life. His results since his return -- tied for fourth at the Masters, missing the cut at the Quail Hollow Championship, withdrawing from the Players Championship -- left open the possibility that an athlete that once seemed able to block out any distraction is now, suddenly, succumbing to them.
"It's certainly not where I would like to have it, no doubt," Woods said of his mind-set. "There's a lot of things going on in my life -- period -- right now. [I'm] just trying to get everything in a harmonious spot, and that's not easy to do. I'm also trying to make life changes as well, and trying to do that under the microscope of everyone asking me and watching everything I do doesn't make it easy."
Now, he has one other element of his life that will be under the microscope. The PGA Tour makes three stops in Texas before the Memorial, then another stop before the U.S. Open. Whether Woods will be there for any of it, even he doesn't currently know.