Slumped over on all fours with searing pain firing up his back on the 13th hole of The Barclays, Tiger Woods looked like a heavyweight fighter on his way to a 10-count. A little more than an hour later, the world’s best golfer just missed forcing a playoff with Adam Scott by about an inch.
In between was yet another drama-filled reminder as to why we can’t take our eyes off the sport’s most dominant figure whether we love him or hate him.
Looking to claim the opening event of the 2013 FedEx Cup playoffs, Woods posted a two-under 69 on Sunday to finish in a four-way tie for second, one stroke behind Scott at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J.
Yet the enduring images of The Barclays will be of Tiger fighting against a bum back and a crowded leaderboard to finish so painfully close to his sixth PGA Tour win of the season.
On the 13th hole, however, it didn't appear he would even finish the round, much less challenge for victory.
Tiger’s back had been an issue for him all week, but it flared so terribly on the par-five 13th that it sent him to the ground in obvious pain. The result of that swing didn't make him feel any better as his approach went way left and into a water hazard.
After picking himself up, Woods went on to bogey the hole.
He then followed with another on the 15th to fall three shots behind Scott with only three holes to play. Looking pained and terribly uncomfortable, he appeared down for the count and out of contention.
But this is Tiger we’re talking about, and where would the drama be in that?
Instead, Woods birdied the par-four 16th and then followed with another on the 17th. As a result, he arrived at the 72nd hole needing a birdie to force Scott back onto the course.
After an average approach to the 18th green, he faced a long, double-breaking putt to equal the reigning Masters champion at 11-under. In classic Tiger form, he nearly holed it, leaving the effort just on the lip of the cup as the gallery gasped and then moaned.
"I had a chance," said Woods (via ESPN's Farrell Evans), who first felt the discomfort in his back on the 12th tee. "I hit a good putt. It was a little double breaker and I thought I poured it."
While not nearly the same stakes, Tiger’s performance over the final six holes at Liberty National was reminiscent of his effort at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open. He played five days on a knee with multiple stress fractures to win that major championship.
Sunday’s effort, however, shows that Woods still possesses the same drive and determination that made him such a dominant force in the game when he won his 14th major title. He's also just as compelling to watch.
Much has certainly changed since that Open victory, the last major Tiger won, but his desire to win has not. Indeed, Woods can be faulted for many things, but his competitiveness is certainly not one of them. Neither is his ability to turn what appears to be the ordinary into the extraordinary.
"I felt great until that tee shot at 12," he said. "I was perfectly fine. I was playing pretty good, and I was hanging right there and at the time Kevin Chappell just made double at 11, and I was only one back.
"So I figured, you know, I was in the perfect spot, and unfortunately just couldn't finish off the rest of the day."
Tiger was out for a month earlier this summer with an elbow injury, a layoff that included the AT&T National, his own tournament. In 2011, he missed both the U.S. Open and British Open with an Achilles injury.
Whether or not he’ll be ready to tee it up in the Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Mass., later this week is a mystery even to him. Like the AT&T, the Deutsche Bank event is managed by the Tiger Woods Foundation.
"That's hypothetical right now," Woods said. "I just got off and I'm not feeling my best right now."
Given that the second stop in the PGA Tour playoffs doesn't get started until Friday—a day later than usual—Tiger will have extra time to rest his bad back, which certainly won’t hurt his chances.
The determination of whether or not he will play likely won’t come for a couple days, and that will certainly add some intrigue to the sport’s already interesting playoffs.
But considering we’re talking about Tiger, that's pretty much par for the course.