Caged Tiger: Dubai withdrawal raises yet more questions over Woods' future

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True sporting greats should never be written off without an abundance of caution.

The allure of the very best athletes comes through their ability to hit rare heights, confounding expectations with feats of improbable, breath-taking brilliance.

When an individual or team displays such mastery of a field, it becomes difficult to place limits on what they may be able to achieve in future. After all, those capable of remarkable performances are naturally more likely to defy their doubters, as Roger Federer did so thrillingly at Melbourne Park last month.

However, even the most devoted followers of Tiger Woods - as dominant a sportsperson as the 21st century has seen - must now be fearing the 14-time major champion's days of contending for golf's premier prizes are over.

On Friday, the 41-year-old withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic ahead of his second round, a back spasm blamed for the latest setback in an increasingly frustrating period.

Woods is certainly no stranger to overcoming adversity. This is a man who somehow withstood two stress fractures to his left tibia and serious knee damage to claim the most recent of his 14 major titles at the 2008 U.S. Open.

Amid his current woes, it is also easy to forget he topped the world rankings as recently as 2013 - when he won five tournaments, including the Players Championship and two WGC events.

Yet his record since then is alarming by any measure, Woods having not looked anything like his brilliant best amid a succession of back problems that have led to three surgical procedures.

Since the start of 2014, Tiger has featured in only 21 events, withdrawing from four of those and missing the cut in a further seven. He also finished last among those to make the weekend at the Memorial two years ago, having carded a humiliating 85 in round three, and was 15th and tied-17th in 18-man fields at the Hero World Challenge - an invitational tournament he hosts.

His only top-10 finish in the last three years came at the Wyndham Championship in 2015 - his last outing prior to a 15-month injury lay-off.

In the same period, Woods has been absent for half of the 12 majors to have taken place and missed the cut in four more, the only completed events bringing finishes of 17th at the 2015 Masters and 69th (out of 72 weekend players) at the 2014 Open Championship.

It is clear he retains significant hunger to succeed again. Why else would Woods commit to an unusually heavy schedule of four events in five weeks - of which the Dubai Desert Classic is the second - in a bid to find form ahead of the Masters in April?

Explaining that move, the American stated: "One of the reasons why I'm playing four out of five is to get more competitive rounds so that come the first full week in April, I'll have more rounds under my belt and know what it feels like to be ready."

Or at least that was the plan. It may now need to be revised.

Even after shooting a five-over 77 on Thursday, Woods insisted with familiar optimism that he had not given up hope of leaving Emirates Golf Club as the champion.

Instead, a withdrawal followed the next morning and the journey back to the United States will undoubtedly be a painful one for a player who faces an enormous challenge to recapture past glories.

A decade ago, Tiger appeared a solid bet to surpass Jack Nicklaus' famous record of 18 major triumphs.

Right now, it is becoming tough to picture him winning another tournament.