Golf: Back problem causes Woods' withdrawal

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TIGER WOODS, who has had a history of back problems, is undergoing a course of physiotherapy in an attempt to ensure his participation in the US Open in a fortnight's time. Woods pulled out of this week's Kemper Open in order to fly to Las Vegas for treatment to his back from his physiotherapist, Keith Kleven.

Last year's Masters champion, who had not previously missed an event due to injury in his 21-month professional career, had been planning to make his last appearance this week before the year's second major at the Olympic Club in San Francisco from 18-21 June.

Woods, 22, recently underwent an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan after suffering from back problems since childhood. He felt his back stiffen up on the flight on Sunday to Orlando from Columbus, where he had been playing in the Memorial Tournament, and it worsened when he went to practise on Monday morning.

Ben Bundred, the tournament chairman of the Kemper Open, was called personally by Woods that afternoon, when he decided to pull out of the event.

"This is a precautionary measure to ensure that Tiger is ready and able to play in the US Open," Bev Norwood, a spokesman for Woods' agents, the International Management Group, said. "His physical therapist advised him that with the US Open coming up he could aggravate the condition by playing this week." The programme consists of heat and ice, stretching and back stabilisation.

IMG, meanwhile, denied the condition was a threat to Woods' career. "It is not threatening his ability to play golf," Norwood said. "But it is a problem that Tiger has to be aware of and get treatment for periodically.

"Tiger has had back pains on and off and his parents have always assumed they were growing pains. But the therapist he has been working with for six months said there were some irregularities in his lower back. His condition, however, is not as severe as it is for other players, like Fred Couples."

Couples has had to limit his schedule and reduce the amount of overseas trips in recent years, but collected his second victory of the year at the Memorial Tournament on Sunday. Woods, who won for the first time in the States this year at the Bell South Classic a month ago, slipped to his worst result of the season as he finished 51st, 17 strokes behind Couples.

Back problems are nothing new to top-class golfers and Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Davis Love are fellow sufferers. The strain on Woods' back is considerable as it is his huge shoulder turn and high hip speed which generate the power for his big hitting.

In common with Ballesteros and Greg Norman, Woods started practising his violent action at a very young age. Although Norman continued to compete at the highest level until recently because - unlike Ballesteros - he remodelled his swing, the 43-year-old Australian is currently out of the game for seven months following shoulder surgery.

Perhaps Woods will have to rein in his swing sooner than he thought. But he is fortunate that his coach, Butch Harmon, is the man who successfully brought off a similar trick with Norman.

Norman has already raised concerns about Woods' long-term fitness. "Tiger has a suspect back even now at 22," Norman said prior to the Masters. "The wear and tear he does hitting balls every day is not going to make it any better and that will niggle away at him."

Olympic is a course Woods knows well as he played it many times as a student. However, the more strategic gameplan needed for a US Open challenge seemed to elude Woods a year ago at Congressional, where he finished 19th. Power is less of an advantage over accuracy, especially as the rough at Olympic promises to be some of the thickest ever seen at a US Open, due to the El Nino storms which battered the west coast of America earlier in the year.

The Open will return to the links course of Muirfield in 2002. It will be the 15th Open hosted by the Scottish course.