2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club

Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

The Tiger Woods we knew is gone; which one will take his place?

Tiger Woods pulled out of the U.S. Open on Tuesday. That means he’s found the good sense to let his injured knee and Achilles’ tendon heal properly. And he also realizes how much time he must devote to his golf game before exposing it to major championships.

Or else it means he already has done so much damage to his body — and his game is now so lost — that even his famous will power can’t face four days at Congressional Country Club.

This is the beginning of good judgment and a multi-year comeback. Or Woods has waited so long and pushed so hard, that his chances of discovering the next version of himself, some satisfying Tiger 2.0, have gotten significantly worse.

There’s now one new thing we know for sure about Woods: In his own evaluation of himself, he has finally faced that he is no longer the world-beater who could play through anything, even a broken leg at the ’08 Open, and live by different rules.

Apparently, he has looked in the mirror at the balding guy who has fallen to No. 15 in the world rankings and switched from course management and distance control to career management and, maybe, life control.

“Not playing in US Open. Very disappointed. Short-term frustration for long-term gain,” Woods tweeted his original news in mid-afternoon.

“I was hopeful that I could play, but if I did, I risk further damage to my left leg,” Woods said in a statement. “My knee and Achilles’ tendon are not fully healed. I hope to be ready for AT&T National, the next two majors and the rest of the year.”

The key decision for Woods is when to start playing again. Note that he said, “I hope to be ready,” not “I will be ready” for those future tournaments. Only Woods and his doctors know what’s really going on from his left knee down to his foot. After four surgeries, a major knee reconstruction, worsening Achilles’ tendon problems and calf problems among his latest issues, the question may be: What does work in that leg?

For a golfer, the “firm left side” is central to a proper swing. Your back and your left leg are as indispensable in golf as the elbow and shoulder ligaments are to a pitcher.

Just three weeks ago, Woods was wisecracking that by the time he played the Senior Tour (at 50) his condition might deteriorate enough that he might need a golf cart, but until then, he’d be good to go. For sure? Are docs telling him he won’t walk 18 holes at 50?

By skipping the U.S. Open, Woods gives himself leeway to return when he’s truly ready, not when bad PR pushes him. Once he’s back, he likely won’t back off until the summer push through the British Open in July and the PGA Championship in August are finished. Now, he has sufficient cover to miss his own AT&T event on Fourth of July weekend.

It’s time for the 35-year-old Woods to stop proving his guts when it’s not necessary; after winning the 2008 U.S. Open on one healthy leg, he’s the leader in the clubhouse in that category in this era. But sometimes the sport itself will corner him into bad-for-the-knee decisions, regardless.

For example, after he reinjured his knee with an awkward shot from slippery pine needles on the 17th hole of the third round of the Masters, he had no realistic choice but to tough out the fourth round, too. With a chance to win (he finished fourth), a historic champion can’t pack his clubs. Augusta National suits Woods so well that he might break 70 on one leg using three clubs — provided one of the clubs was a scalding hot putter.

The litmus test for Woods’s common sense was the Players Championship. And he failed completely. How out of touch do you have to be — with your injuries, the state of your game, or your own limits — to show up at the “fifth major” and shoot 42 for nine holes, chunking simple pitch shots in the water and walking like a snail.

When he hobbled off the course in mid-round, it was a watershed. The original version of Woods as an almost superhuman golfer with abnormal mental strength was finally destroyed, even in his own mind. For everyone else, especially his competitors, that person had already become part of golf history.

Now Woods must find out who the next Tiger will be. How often will he play and how many balls will he pound? How much time will he take for himself, and his children, as he sorts out all his personal issues? Can he remake the man, as he has said his therapy requires, and still be the same competitor? And if the two conflict, which takes priority?

Since that Thanksgiving night in ’09, Woods’s career has been in slow-motion disintegration. His actual life? That could be getting better; we wouldn’t really know. But idle golf clubs are the devil’s workshop. And for months at a time, Woods jilted his sticks — first for the knee reconstruction, then for the personality reconstruction and now for the re-injury rehab. The clubs are taking turns exacting their revenge, all 14 of them.

You stray from the game, and the rust builds. Change technique and the old swing creeps back under the greatest pressure. Walk on crutches, wear a protective boot and the wrong muscles strengthen while the proper ones atrophy. Then you have to rebalance it all. Every time you reinjure the same joint, you may have to change your swing yet again.

“I will be back playing when I can,” Woods wrote, but he doesn’t know when.

Humans often end up forgiving infidelity. But golf never does.

 
Read what others are saying