Our habits are our stripes; and they are as hard to change as a tiger’s.
Right now, Tiger Woods wants to break one of his most central habits, a character trait that’s always run to the core of both his golf glories and his injuries: the desire to push beyond. Beyond what? What have you got? Whatever others find normal, sensible, almost sane, has been Woods’s departure point.
Now, he wants to be like us — well, a little bit anyway. Until this very moment, that has always proved impossible for him. Finally, after six years of constant physical pain and limitation, he says he has seen the light: either learn patience, listen to his body and moderate or forget about any more golf glory.
Vegas hasn’t posted odds yet, but “pick ’em” should be close. After listening to Woods speak at his own Quicken Loans National, it’s clear he knows the riff and believes it. But once every few minutes, he betrays how brutally hard this habit- and stripe-changing business truly is, as tough for him as for us.
With Woods you have to wait a few years, or 10, to find out the real story. Sooner or later the true history comes out, sometimes even from Tiger. Now, from Woods, we get an account of why his body has, from a pro athlete’s perspective, fallen apart since 2008. Speaking at Congressional Country Club, he explained how, at age 38, he hoped to mend himself after back surgery in March, regain his game and correct that double-edged habit of “pushing, harder and harder and harder until stuff breaks.”
It’s a great project — if it’s not already too late.
“All the early years on Tour when I used to run 30 miles a week and just push it, no matter how hurt I was, I would just go out there, still logging all the miles,” Woods said, “but I didn’t realize how much damage I was doing to my body. . . . So, my knee ached. So what? I’ll just run more miles, and it will magically go away. Just get the endorphins going.”
Tiger didn’t mention that plenty of the running was done in combat boots — hence, three knee surgeries, a broken leg from repeated stress and a badly strained Achilles’ heel.
“That old adage, with age comes wisdom . . . I have certainly become much more patient,” Woods said.
If that’s true, it has happened in the last nanosecond of golf time. Right up to his remarks Tuesday, there’s no actual evidence that he has broken his old patterns, only that he now wishes he could.
While “with age comes wisdom” sounds good, the adage that’s applied to Woods is “too soon old, too late smart.” His problem is not that he doesn’t listen to others. He doesn’t listen to himself. Analyze his own description of the progression of his back miseries.
Last season Woods had weeks where “I felt fantastic . . . I won five times . . . Then there were weeks I just couldn’t move. What’s going on here? . . . The symptoms would just go away. Then I was back to hitting practice balls all day. No issues. Then it would spring up again. I don’t know why. My physio [therapist] would treat me. And off I go again.”
Surely, “hitting balls all day” and “off I go again” comes close to defining “not listening.” Woods’s intentions were good. But the same fanatical work ethic that led to 14 major titles, the same self-confidence that led to an on-course persona of invincibility was also a path to increased vulnerability.
Yet this professed patience and Woods’s own timeline is a tight squeeze. He says he “only putted” for two months. That leaves little more than a month to go from “chipping and putting” up through the entire bag to driver and, now, playing in a PGA Tour event.
One moment he says he realizes that “I can’t do what I used to do.” He knows how lucky he is that “I had zero arthritic changes in my lower back. That’s . . . shocking to me but doctors as well,” he said.
It always has been Woods’s charismatic-but-scary, elevating-but-endangering, fanatical-but-fascinating habit to view himself as invincible and exceptional — beyond any norms. That’s how his parents raised, or programmed, their prodigy. It’s made him an athlete far bigger than golf whom the whole world watched. And it has led him off a couple of cliffs.
Woods says he’s changed. But how much? Tiger seldom identifies with golfers. Too tame. He watched the U.S. Open “a little bit” but watched “more World Cup.” In his rehab, he didn’t ask advice of other golfers but of friends from “other pro sports” where “physiques” like his were the norm. As he adapts his game to age, Tiger says, “Just like MJ, I’ve got a fadeaway now.”
Who’ll show up at Congressional this week? The impatient fanatic Tiger who, with hindsight, has been in a sprint to hurt himself for a half-dozen years or the wise Woods who wants to emerge and have a final act worthy of his whole career?