The problem for the moment is not that Tiger Woods isn’t the same. It’s that we are the same. We keep thinking this is the Tiger of a couple years past, maybe even the Tiger who was a miracle worker last summer. But it isn’t.
It couldn’t be. And it won’t be for a while.
The surgery Tiger underwent last June a few days after he somehow performed the impossible, winning the U.S. Open on one leg, the reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament of the left knee, necessitates months of recovery.
In an athlete’s case, years.
Yet Woods is playing demanding, big-time golf 11 months in, perhaps against own best plans. And because Tiger didn’t win the Masters, and even more significantly, faded in The Players despite being paired with the collapsing leader, we’re dumbfounded.
In truth, we’re merely dumb.
Dr. Lanny Johnson, a pioneering orthopedic specialist who created the tools used in Tiger’s surgery, in September advised Woods not to return too quickly.
“Other forces will try and hurry Tiger back, Johnson told the Daily Telegraph of London, “but he should take it easy…If you tear your cruciate ligament in football, you can play within a year, and with full confidence within two years. Based on this, and the recovery period of other athletes, I am guessing that Tiger will need two years.”
But he hasn’t had even one year. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in March, only the third tournament he entered following the eight-month absence. In the five stroke-play events in which he’s competed, starting at Doral in mid-March, there’s no finish worse than ninth.
We want more, because we’ve known more. He wants more, although he understands why he doesn’t have more.
“I didn’t have the pop in my body, nor should I,” Woods said after coming in fourth at Quail Hollow, another place where the old Tiger, the pre-surgery Tiger, would have won, but this Tiger could not win.
“It takes time for anyone who has had reconstruction to come back and get the speed back and the agility and all those different things. Most athletes take over a year to get back. I’ve been able to get back sooner because of the nature of my sport.”
In which there is no running or leaping or contact. But in which there is considerable stress. Tiger’s not hitting his drives nearly as far. After the Masters, Phil Mickelson, who was with Tiger the final round at Augusta, joked with the Associated Press, “I had to keep waiting for him to hit.”
Tiger’s never hit his drives that straight. Now, shorter and even more erratic, he’s playing a different game than he played back then. The marvelous recovery shots – under trees, out of bunkers – still are there. The worry is he’s hitting one seemingly on every hole.
While Woods was gone, as Nike emphasized in its light-hearted commercial of its stable of golfers, others improved. They literally could look down a fairway instead of figuratively over their shoulders.
The others gained confidence. Surely, Tiger lost some, along with strength.
That Woods comprehends his own flaws doesn’t mean he is accepting of them. The anger at a poor shot was apparent. And after a round, which failed to satisfy his own standards, Tiger cut short media time to rush to the practice ground.
What Tiger taught us in his greatness, and what should not be forgotten in his struggles, is he never is to be underestimated.
Tiger missed the cut at the 2006 U.S. Open after a nine-week layoff following his father’s death, the only time as a pro Woods didn’t play all four rounds in a major. While the doubters suggested he might be slipping, Tiger leaped back with victories in the British Open and PGA Championship.
It is a cliché now, Tiger insisting he wouldn’t enter any tournament unless he believed he would win. That doesn’t separate him from the rest, from Phil Mickelson or Geoff Ogilvy or, considering The Players, Henrik Stenson. These guys think they’ll finish first every time out.
You don’t modify your thinking, even if you have to modify your swing. The TPC Sawgrass Course, with its mounds and lakes and pines, always has been a challenge to Woods. He won there, won The Players, in 2001. But only then.
A course always troublesome for Tiger, a knee still far from totally recovered, and Woods, instead of a sub-par final round and a win, has a one-over par final round and eighth place.
He isn’t the same. But he will be. After all, he’s Tiger Woods.