DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Something happened between the Bahamas and Dubai, by way of San Diego. Gone in the Middle East was the guy who exuded confidence and fitness in the Caribbean. Missing was the man with the free-flowing swings, replaced by a golfer who one television commentator said looked "like an old man."
Tiger Woods got seven rounds into his comeback from multiple back surgeries and limped to the sideline again. He came all the way to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles, to play 18 holes of tournament golf. He left with doubts looming larger.
The official reason given was back spasms, described by Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, as not related to the nerve damage and surgeries that have plagued him the past three years. Steinberg suggested this was a short-term problem and didn't discount Woods' ability to play in two weeks at the Genesis Open.
But even Woods' longtime agent acknowledged, "I'm sure there's so many different factors that go into it. I just couldn't know what causes a back to go into spasm. Look, he doesn't have the strongest back in the world, right?"
Despite saying otherwise, Woods did not look right during the opening round on Thursday. Frankly, he didn't look all that great at the Farmers Insurance Open last week in San Diego, either.
At Torrey Pines, his performance was attributed to cold weather, thick wet rough and narrow fairways. Woods never appeared comfortable, but that was easily explained: a guy with a bad back who has hardly played in the past 18 months might be excused if he didn't want to overdo it.
At Emirates Golf Club, there would be warm weather and a more benign course. Woods arrived in the wee hours on Tuesday and was at the course by noon to hit balls; he did so carefully and without much intensity, maybe as simple as trying to get loose after a long flight.
There seemed to be no apparent issues in the Wednesday pro-am, where Woods has never gone all-out. He looked and sounded fine, chatted several times between shots. He didn't hit his irons particularly well, but it was standard fare, no alarms.
From the moment he hit his first tee shot on Thursday, Woods looked different. He walked gingerly and did not swing freely. On the first hole he emerged from a greenside bunker so awkwardly that Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee said the golfer "looked like an old man."
On his third hole, Woods barely missed the fairway, then played his second shot on the par-4 from the rough without going after it like he normally might. The ball came to rest short of the green, from where he 3-putted.
Woods failed to make a birdie in Round 1, something that last occurred during the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship in 2014. He shot 78 that day, then had his first back surgery a few weeks later.
The hope is that this is not a bad omen. But it's tough to know given the sparse information offered. Woods had a chance to give some insight after his round on Thursday. He was told that he looked like he might have been in pain.
"No, I wasn't in pain at all," he said. "I was just trying to hit shots, and I wasn't doing a very good job."
Steinberg said Friday that the issues arose after Woods had dinner Thursday night and there were no problems beforehand. Spasms, he said, have occurred before. "He says it's not the nerve pain that's kept him out for so long," Steinberg said. "He says it's a back spasm and he just can't get the spasm to calm down."
But Steinberg said that Woods had not been to a doctor and was treated only by his unnamed trainer, who travels with the golfer to all his tournaments.
For whatever reason, Woods has always been loath to offer much information about his various ailments, as if he were a football player who could be left vulnerable to the opposition targeting the injured body part. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but what the ears heard Friday did not match what the eyes saw during his Thursday round.
All of this makes it fair to wonder whether Woods should have been so ambitious with his scheduling. Four events in five weeks, with a long journey to the Middle East and a lengthy one back to Florida afterward. Then another trip to California followed by a flight home for the Honda Classic.
He acknowledged it was an important question after missing the cut at Torrey Pines. "How's my body going to handle flights? Flying out here was something I hadn't done in a while. So now we've got a pretty good jaunt, 17 hours. It will be good."
To be fair, much has been made of Woods flying commercial, but consider that he was in first class in his own suite. (Emirates Airlines prices such tickets from Los Angeles to Dubai, roundtrip, in the $30,000 range.) That kind of luxury might be better than flying on his own plane, which would have had to make multiple stops to make it this far. The question is whether he should have come at all, not how he did it.
All of which takes us back to Albany Golf Club in the Bahamas, where Woods showed so much promise in December. Although he finished far out of contention at the Hero World Challenge, he led the field in birdies. There were no signs of injury or trepidation.
Woods arrived early and played golf every day. On the Sunday before the tournament, during a two-hour practice session, Woods had no trouble carrying drives more than 300 yards, shaping shots in both directions with his various clubs while showing no pangs of discomfort.
When a reporter remarked that he didn't look bad for an old guy, Woods quipped: "I'm not dead."
From tons of promise in the Bahamas to loads of unanswered questions in Dubai. You wonder if Woods didn't practice as much in the seven weeks between tournaments or if there was some sort of setback that caused him to tiptoe through these past three rounds of golf.
When asked Wednesday about the latest reincarnation of his golf swing, Woods said: "The simplest thing is just to play away from pain."
Sadly, Woods had seemingly done all the right things, resisting the urge to return too soon, taking his time with this comeback. It is quite possible that this is but a temporary setback, yet Woods has now withdrawn four times in his past 19 official starts.
You think the long flight here was tough on Woods? The journey home might be more difficult, with or without any lingering pain.