You're Perfect, Now Change

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, June 19, 2008

When Tiger Woods and his buddies are lifting weights and approach exhaustion, somebody always asks, "How many more repetitions?"

"The answer is always, 'Four,' " Woods said on Monday after winning his third U.S. Open. "That's four as in 'forever.' " And he laughed.

That laughter, full of ambition, ego, bravery and perhaps pathology, is the soundtrack in the parallel universe of Tiger Woods. It's a world shared by the rare people in every other occupation who, for whatever reasons -- some noble, some nuts, some both -- always rebel at limits and push beyond. Beyond what?

As Marlon Brando said, when asked what he was rebelling against, the answer is always the same: "Whatdaya got?"

To fathom what Woods did at the U.S. Open, winning his national title over five days while playing on a left leg that had a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and two stress fractures in the tibia, in addition to recovering from surgery to remove cartilage eight weeks earlier, we have to go back in time 10 months.

To understand the challenges and perils, many running to the core of Woods's personality, that will face him as he tries to resume his place as the greatest golfer who ever lived, we must also look at the entire progression of decisions that Woods has made for almost the past year.

Then, perhaps, you'll agree with two conclusions. First, given his lose-lose options once he learned of his stress fractures, Woods made the right decision to gut out the U.S. Open -- a win that produces even more chills now, in retrospect, than it did in real time.

Second, however, we will see how a whole sequence of decisions has demolished Woods's left knee -- the one that absorbs the torque of his ferocious swing -- to the point where, in the words of swing coach Hank Haney, "by last week there wasn't much left to damage, frankly."

The lesson Woods should, perhaps, take from this episode is that, while his U.S. Open courage was magnificent, his attitude toward preserving and protecting his body must change or the rest of his career may be half of what it should be.

As Woods walked the fifth hole Sunday, a fan yelled, "No pain, no gain." Sounds romantic. But remember Seve Ballesteros's back. By 35, he was history.

The red flag that began this magnificent melodramatic mess was waved in Woods's face last summer. For the first time in his career, his body offered up a menacing challenge to his own sense of limitlessness, to own destiny. His ACL had a "spontaneous rupture." It didn't snap in an accident. "Ping," it just wore out, as he was running near his home in Orlando. Yet the injury wasn't a surprise. Woods was told 10 years ago that he had a "deficient ACL." He could have exercised less stressfully -- swim, stationary bike. But he liked to run. So he did.

Tiger could have had surgery quickly, requiring the same six to eight months of rehab that he will face now. But despite constant discomfort-to-pain, he didn't. Instead, he won five of his next six events, including the PGA Championship, his 13th major. His concession to the injury was to skip a customary trip to play in Asia and rest his knee more before the 2008 season. "The hope was to have the ACL done after the '08 season," Mark Steinberg, Woods's agent, said yesterday.

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