PALM BEACH GARDENS -- There came a wincing reminder here Sunday that Tiger Woods even almost six years removed from his last major golf championship remains the biggest thing on the PGA Tour and in his sport, and it isnt even close.
He is bigger, not winning, than whomever is posing beside the giant cardboard check.
He is bigger, not even playing, than whomever is.
Woods has defined golf since the moment he won the 1997 Masters and carries the mantel unrivaled into 2014, and, whether by excellence and domination or by scandal and comeback, he continues to be more compelling than anybody chasing him.
Woods is bigger because hes back to No. 1 in the world rankings. But he also is bigger because the younger generation has offered nobody to overtake him. The next Tiger Woods, or even a consensus successor, is taking his time revealing himself.
That we were also reminded of Sunday, on a day lower-back spasms forced Woods to withdraw after the 13th hole.
The heir to Tiger is supposed to be Rory McIlroy, 24, and might still be, but McIlroys claim weakened as he blew a tournament-long lead, lapsed into a four-way playoff and then lost on the first extra hole to little-known Russell Henley, a 24-year-old former Georgia Bulldog who claimed his second career PGA Tour win.
It wasnt long after Woods withdrawal that a double bogey on 16 and bogey on 17 put a match to McIlroys scorecard. His second shot on 16 went from sand to water.
That is what sort of killed me, he said. Then McIlroy missed an 11-foot putt on 18 that would have won it outright.
Woods had a bad day.
McIlroys was worse.
Its going to be hard to get over, he said.
His late collapse and resulting four-way playoff offered fair drama some 90 miles north of Miami at PGA National Resort & Spa, yet it was Woods sudden withdrawal that set the buzz swarming across the course.
Now the tour swings south to Doral for this weeks World Golf Championships event, and all at once the story isnt Donald Trumps massive refurbishing of the Blue Monster course but whether or not Tiger will be prowling on it defending his title.
Woods was 5-over-par for the day and well out of the hunt when he aborted his round, immediately raising questions and doubts about his availability for Doral.
Its too early to tell, Woods said right afterward, as you could all but hear Trump and Doral officials groaning. I need treatment every day until Thursday to try to calm it down. [Then] well see how it is.
Woods said his back had begun bothering him during morning warm-ups, and by the 11th hole he was seen grimacing slightly after full swings.
I noticed he was bending down gingerly, playing partner Luke Guthrie said.
The best guess here is that Woods will play Doral, but with the Masters looming in April as the seasons first major, he will also undoubtedly weigh caution and not want to aggravate the ailment, have it linger and affect his Augusta plans.
The majors left in Woods career tank are increasingly precious things as he strives to end his majors drought and give himself a fighting chance against increasing odds to still catch Jack Nicklaus career record of 18. Tiger has 14, but that hasnt changed since the summer of 2008.
Woods is 38 now. Sunday marked only the seventh withdrawal of his long career but the fourth since 2010, including his previous one at Doral in 12. That isnt a mystery. Thats called aging. And anybody who has had back spasms knows they can be unpredictable. They can be a minor nuisance easily treated, but they also can cause debilitating pain that makes swinging a golf club unthinkable.
As Woods works to feel better, unfreeze his majors count and resume chasing history, McIlroy struggles to polish the It Boy aura he enjoyed in 2011-2012 but has since seen run from him. McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open and added four wins in 12 including the Honda and the PGA Championship. He is the only active multiple-major winner younger than 30, let alone younger than 25.
The 2013 season was a nightmare, though. McIlroy went winless, struggling with new Nike equipment and with issues of temperament. His PGA Tour title drought is now 18 months. It was one year ago at the Honda that he withdrew in the second round in the midst of playing poorly, claiming a toothache. He was internationally criticized and later admitted he should not have withdrawn.
McIlroy had a chance Sunday to symbolically both atone to the Honda tournament and to put his awful 13 season in the past, but instead his mini-meltdown left him doing neither.
How McIlroy plays this week at Doral will be a big story in the buildup to the WGC on the Blue Monster.
But it wont be as big a story as whether Tiger Woods plays at all.
The names of the chasers change, but the man they are chasing does not.
After all this time, its still Tiger.