Tiger Woods: Short-term pain of playing U.S. Open vs. long-term gain


Tiger Woods waits on the 13th green during the first round of the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES)

As his left knee aches and his Achilles’ tendon throbs, as the immobilizing boot on his ankle makes his back hurt, as he tends to his cold-water therapy and soft-tissue treatments, Tiger Woods thinks about the same problem: the U.S. Open.

As he uses crutches and leaves his golf clubs untouched for weeks at a time, as he wonders if he will ever completely rebuild his swing or rediscover the putting stroke his father taught him, he considers: Should I play at Congressional?

Woods says he’ll do everything he can, which in his case is to do nothing at all and hope his miseries mend, to come to the Washington area from June 16 to 19. What could be more important? The rest of his career could be a lot more important — at least to him.

Only Woods knows how his body feels or how fast he’s healed. His pain threshold is legendarily high. So he could fool himself. But you know he’s hurting when he admits it to Jack Nicklaus. “Tiger called me” on May 27th, Nicklaus said this week. “He said, ‘I’m still hobbling, and I don’t know whether I’m going to make the U.S. Open or not.’ ”

Even in the best case, Woods just began to rehab idle muscles that he calls “atrophied.” Then he must start working on his golf game again — you know, the sport he’s barely played since he reinjured his chronically bad left leg at the Masters two months ago.

Let’s see: Get injured in April, take the rest cure, rush back, aggravate it in May at The Players Championship, where you withdraw after a 42 for nine holes. Then, after walking to the parking lot looking 90 years old, you’re going to flog yourself to play the Open?

We all saw Woods win the ’08 U.S. Open on a stress-fractured leg with a knee that needed total reconstruction. Once he’s in the hunt, he will never back off. If he comes to Bethesda and somehow plays as well as he did at the Masters, where he finished fourth, he’ll tough it out. And, since it’s not our leg, we’ll enjoy it. Ken Venturi might get mentioned.

But, deep down, is such a long shot worth it? Or is this guy out of his golf mind?

If Woods takes care of everything that’s wrong with him — knee, Achilles’, calf, swing, putting, lost mystique, temper, therapy, personal life (don’t even go there) and the final touches on his new $50 million bachelor home with the personal practice course — and gets most of it right, he might have another 10 years when his golf could make him happy.

It would probably make a lot of other people happy, too. Who enjoys watching the most famous athlete on earth (three years ago) turn into No. 12 in the world and falling?

But Tiger better think about Tiger, not about us. What’s it like to have no game left before you’re 40? It happened to the late Seve Ballesteros because of his back. It can happen to Woods.

If he messes up his elite body badly again — perhaps the leg, but maybe something else while compensating — how many pitched-battle comebacks can he mount in one lifetime? Has Woods ever done anything spectacularly self-destructive? Have a care.

Woods should ask himself: If he push, push, pushes through the next 10 weeks, through the U.S. Open, then his own AT&T event, then the British Open and finally the PGA Championship, will his leg be in one piece at the end? Or is he just playing golf Russian roulette to see which event turns out to be the breaking point?

Once Woods starts his forced march through the summer events, who thinks he will know when to stop? He isn’t going to quit until he does what he did at The Players: hurt himself again. The big decision is the first one: when to come back. U.S. Open, AT&T, the British? The question isn’t, “Can I stand the pain?” It should be, “Am I healthy yet?”

Woods was born with great gifts and developed others. But one he’s lacked, because child prodigies seldom need it, is common sense. That’s essential to the rest of us, but often a hindrance to those with outlandish ability. But at 35, Woods needs to learn what the rest of us take for granted. First rule: Avoid huge blunders.

“It’s the same thing I’ve said to him a thousand times,” said Nicklaus, who had common sense in copious quantity. “Get yourself healthy, do what you have to do to go play, get your golf game back in shape and I wish you well.”

That sounds so easy. But you have to imagine Woods’s world to grasp how alien common sense can seem. His home gym is 6,400 square feet. His backyard has four greens and six bunkers. Woods’s house, he says, is “also set up so I can hit shots out of my second-story studio.” That could help if he hooks a tee ball into the Congressional dining room.

“All my docs have said [the leg] should be ready to go” by the U.S. Open, Woods said recently. “Should be good to go.”

However, that same day, he made a bleaker comment. “As far as the future, I’ve had four surgeries on it, so obviously it’s not what it was. . . . I’m sure down the road it may be more difficult, but hopefully I’ll be in a cart by then on the Senior Tour. But between now and then, I should be pretty good.”

Maybe, if he takes time to heal properly. A sense of invincibility and exceptionality helped Woods win titles, but also caused him plenty of trouble. He has said he needs to change his life. Here’s one way. Stop pretending you’re still 20-something.

The real Woods is now balding, gimpy, divorced with kids and 69th in driving distance. If he treats his body right, he might still win those five more majors for 19. If he doesn’t, he can mess up his body so badly that, eventually, he could hold a record that no one ever imagined was possible for him: golf’s most poignant risk-reward object lesson.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist.
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