Sunday, September 4, 2011

For gimpy Tiger Woods, odds getting longer

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's a good thing that Tiger Woods is planning to play in the U.S. Open next month: Good for TV ratings, good for fans of the game, good for Tiger lovers, good for Tiger haters (who else would they cheer against?), good for grandmothers who otherwise have to find something else to do on Sunday afternoons and good for reality show fans, because Tiger truly is the best reality TV going in sports these days, other than perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers.

  • Tiger Woods has won before on a bad leg, but can he do it at age 35?

    By Chris O'Meara, AP

    Tiger Woods has won before on a bad leg, but can he do it at age 35?

By Chris O'Meara, AP

Tiger Woods has won before on a bad leg, but can he do it at age 35?

Now, whether it's good for Tiger himself is another matter entirely.

He's reeling. He's injured; it's his left knee, which already has endured four surgical procedures over the past 16 years. He's 35, with a body that skews older. He's now missing months of tournaments at a time. Players younger than Tiger, sometimes as much as nine years younger, are winning in his absence. He hasn't won a major in three years, the longest dry spell of his career. He's about to fall out of the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time since 1997.

If these sentences were being written about any other golfer, we'd feel comfortable — perhaps even certain — saying that it looks as if he's in trouble. We might even utter the "D" word, as in, he's done. But because we have so much history with Tiger, we just can't do it.

In fact, we think just the opposite: He won the U.S. Open on that bum leg three years ago, his last major win. Of course he'll do it again. He'll just jump off his couch, hit a couple of balls on the range and win the most demanding tournament in golf. Who needs practice? Not our Tiger.

It's as if we're still processing what has happened to Woods over the past year and a half, trying to reconcile the new, struggling Tiger with his old, invincible self. Just when logic tells us to write him off, our muscle memory kicks in and we tell ourselves: Not yet. It's Tiger. He still can win. Whether we'll be saying that in another year or two, who knows? But we're still saying it now.

Just check out the oddsmakers. They picked Tiger to win The Players Championship last week after he hadn't hit a golf ball in 28 days. That didn't pan out so well when his bad knee forced him to withdraw after playing just nine holes.

Tiger-based optimism happens to the best of us. Jack Nicklaus has never been known to sugarcoat anything, but on this one, he's giving Woods plenty of wiggle room.

"He has a pretty significant injury, obviously, that is bothering him," Nicklaus told the Palm Beach Post on Tuesday. "But I always feel like when you're injured and have the talent he has, you'll figure out a way to play, and he'll figure out a way to get it back. He's got a lot more golf in him. I promise you, he's not done."

Everyone who has watched the most famous athlete of our time at the top of his game is trying to make sense of him now at rock bottom. (At least Woods hopes this is rock bottom.) We've never seen a fall from grace like this, now 18 months in the making. It's not totally about the car accident and the unraveling of his personal life anymore. It's actually more about his health. He's breaking down physically. How much more can his left knee endure? And when the left knee buckles, it takes his Achilles tendon and calf with it in a "chain reaction," as Woods called it last week.

At a time when he needs to play more to feel comfortable with his latest golf swing, doctors have advised rest, cold-water therapy and soft-tissue treatment, according to his website. This is not the way to prepare for a U.S. Open.

And yet, there's still plenty of talk about Tiger winning four more majors to tie Nicklaus' record of 18, then capturing a fifth to pass him. Just matching the record would be no small feat: Tiger would need to equal Phil Mickelson's entire career in major victories — four — to do it.

On a bad knee. Starting at the age of 35.

What are the odds? Don't ask.

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