Tiger Woods’ Masters defence in doubt after Players Championship withdrawal | Sport

The ability of Tiger Woods to successfully defend the Masters has been thrown into considerable doubt after a lingering back problem ruled the 15-times major champion out of next week’s Players Championship.

Ordinarily, the PGA Tour’s marquee event at Sawgrass would constitute a key part of Woods’s Masters build-up. The first major of the year, which Woods won in such sensational style in 2019, is now little over a month away.

Mark Steinberg, Woods’s manager, issued a statement via ESPN on Friday evening as the deadline to enter the Players approached. “Back just not ready,” Steinberg said. “Not concerning long term, just not ready.” Nonetheless, the long-term nature of Woods’s back problems means wider speculation is inevitable. Woods has undergone four surgeries on that area.

The 44-year-old complained of rigidity in his back when finishing last among players who made the cut at the Genesis Invitational. “I feel stiff, but I have weeks like that, especially in the cold mornings,” Woods said. “I don’t quite move as well and that’s just kind of how it’s going to go.”

He subsequently skipped the WGC Mexico and this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, with the prevailing sense he would make a return to competitive action at the Players. Steinberg had previously claimed his client was “not quite ready” to participate in the Arnold Palmer. That fitness concerns have persisted will inevitably raise eyebrows. Woods is a two-time Players winner, with this year’s event carrying a record prize fund of $15m.

Curiously, Woods’s year had started reasonably well. He shared ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open and played his first nine of the Genesis in 31.

Matters appeared to deteriorate thereafter, however. It now remains to be seen whether Woods is capable of playing tournament golf at all before the Masters. Should he opt to do so, the Valspar Championship from 19 March or the WGC Match Play the following week would come into the equation. The Masters tees off on 9 April.

In maintaining an ominous theme, Jason Day withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational midway through his second round, with a back injury the cause. Day has been plagued by back problems and prematurely exited the same event 12 months ago for that reason. The Australian subsequently underwent treatment, including multiple cortisone injections.

Jaon Day of Australia plays his shot from the third tee at Bay Hill before withdrawing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Photograph: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Day was three over par for the tournament at the time of his latest departure. “Jason had some stiffness in his lower back on the putting green before the round,” said a statement from the player’s management. “He tried to play through it but it stiffened up again later on the golf course.”

Patrick Reed’s second 70 in as many days placed him firmly in contention on a blustery Friday. “I was kind of sloppy from tee to green today but I was able to make some putts and eliminate the big number,” said Reed.

Phil Mickelson was among those to miss the cut on Friday at Bay Hill. Mickelson added a 72 to Thursday’s 77. “I thought it was a really hard golf course and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to play in these type of conditions,” Mickelson said. “I’m a little frustrated that I haven’t gotten off to the start this year I would like but I’m not discouraged. I don’t feel like I’m that far off, but yesterday’s score was a little disappointing.”

Mickelson subsequently appeared to aim a dig at Rory McIlroy, who was forceful in his dismissal of the breakaway Premier Golf League plan. The American’s interest in the scheme was endorsed by the playing of a pro-am in Saudi Arabia with some of the individuals behind the project, which seeks to offer players a and highly lucrative alternative . “I wouldn’t come out and say I’m not going to do it right away … and lose all your leverage,” Mickelson added. Meeow.

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