By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOUISVILLE Kentucky (Reuters) - The early exit by an ailing Tiger Woods from this week's PGA Championship prompted widespread debate about his immediate playing future, with many suggesting that he should shut down for the rest of the year.
Woods has been a shadow of his former self since back surgery in late March and he missed the cut at Valhalla Golf Club on Friday after struggling for form and rhythm while clearly not at full health.
Though he pronounced himself fit to compete in the year's final major after recovering from back spasms that forced him to withdraw from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last week, the 14-times major winner played poorly in both rounds.
"He has gone from the artist to the engineer," former PGA Championship winner Paul Azinger said on Saturday while commentating as a television analyst for Golf Channel.
"It is difficult to watch a Vincent Van Gogh paint by numbers. We want to see Tiger come back and get all of this stuff out of his head.
"The golf swing takes a second and a half. What is running through his head in a second and a half that has caused him to lose face and path awareness?
"Something is happening in the strongest and greatest mind that golf has ever known that is different, and he has got to fix it. It is not just physical."
Butch Harmon, who previously worked as a swing coach for Woods, felt the former world number one should have quit midway through Friday's second round at Valhalla instead of battling on to card a second successive three-over-par 74.
"I was surprised he played the back nine. He looked really sore on the front nine; he looked like he was in a lot of pain," Harmon said during a Sky Sports telecast.
"I think Tiger wanted to show 'I came here to play, I'm going to finish my round'. Quite frankly he swung at about 70 percent on the back nine and hit a lot of good shots.
"I hope he goes home and gets healthy and comes back because the game is in a better place when Tiger Woods is at the top of the leaderboard."
STUCK ON 14 MAJORS
Woods, who has been stuck on 14 major wins since his playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, has played just eight tournaments worldwide this year with his best result a tie for 25th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
He has withdrawn twice from his seven PGA Tour starts and missed the cut in two others, this week at Valhalla marking only his fourth missed cut in a major as a professional.
Woods had said the back spasms he suffered at last week's Bridgestone Invitational were resolved after his physiotherapist had popped back his sacrum (a bone at the base of the spine), which had loosened after he landed awkwardly in a bunker.
However, a similar problem occurred before he teed off in the PGA Championship second round, forcing him to restrict his back swing and rely on timing, a combination that left him a distant 15 strokes off the lead by the time he finished.
On Friday, Woods gave no indication as to when he would next play in a tournament, saying: "I just need to get stronger first. We'll see from there."
Woods was sidelined for three months after his late March back surgery, causing him to miss the Masters in April and the U.S. Open in June. His good friend Notah Begay III would now like to see him take an extended break from the game.
"This could be a blessing in disguise for Tiger Woods," said Begay, a television analyst with Golf Channel who played with Woods on the Stanford University golf team. "It might be something that he needs, which is a forced layoff."
"First, he needs to get to the heart of the problem. He has a good assessment of what is causing it, which is why he teed it up this week. He knew he wasn't going to hurt himself further, but he knew it was going to be hard."
"Once he figures that out, then he needs to play more ... get more competitive reps and to sharpen those skills on what hopefully will be a technically sound swing philosophy."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)