Tuesday 16 January 2018

Relentless pursuit of power exposes Tiger's fatal flaw

Recurring knee injuries are starting to take a toll on Tiger Woods' career, writes Dermot Gilleece

W ith the patient's post-operative exercises being mainly in his own gym, we were informed the left knee would take six months to heal.

Especially interesting about this familiar medical report is that it applied not to Tiger Woods but to the iconic figure whose Major record is looking a little more secure right now.

Only 11 days from the start of the US Open, Woods faces a battle against the clock in having his left knee sufficiently stable to make a worthwhile challenge at Congressional where he was tied 19th behind Ernie Els in 1997.

In 1985, Jack Nicklaus missed the cut for the first time in 24 Open Championships when rounds of 77 and 75 at Royal St Georges prompted him to reveal details of a knee operation the previous November. It had to do, ironically, with cartilage damage sustained when playing tennis. "I have lost some of the strength in my legs and won't have the opportunity to regain full fitness until after the end of the season," he said.

Clearly, the Bear's problems were far less severe than those endured by Woods, who had extensive surgery involving the anterior medial ligament after an extraordinary US Open triumph at Torrey Pines three years ago. Still, it is fascinating that Nicklaus found it necessary to state at Sandwich: "I have no desire to quit playing golf at the moment."

Nine months later, as a 46-year-old, he won the last of his 18 Major titles in the Masters at Augusta. That was when Woods got the idea of pinning the Bear's Major record on his bedroom wall as a raison d'etre for his future in the game.

It is also revealing to note a recent interview given by Johnny Miller to leading US scribe, Jaime Diaz, in which Miller spoke of being a "physical mess" when a sparkling career began to falter prematurely during the 1970s. He referred to "a bunch of knee operations", among other ailments.

Recurring problems for Woods can be traced back to late 2002 when he had a cyst removed and fluid drained from his left knee. A fourth surgery came in June 2008 after which Dr Ronald Grelsamer, a knee surgeon at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, suggested in Sports Illustrated: "If worst comes to worst, he (Woods) has a knee replacement, and that's not the end of the world."

Now that the knee is giving problems once more, this quote is being resurrected as a serious, even immediate solution. It's as if Woods can have a new left knee installed, make further refinements to his swing and continue happily in his pursuit of the Bear's record. American observers are even pointing to the success Fred Funk has had since having knee-replacement surgery as a 53-year-old in November 2009.

It is true that Funk has blazed quite a trail. Having had the surgery as the reigning US Senior Open champion, he returned early last year, not only to compete impressively but to capture another senior Major with victory in the Tradition on August 22. And as recently as last weekend, he was tied 39th behind Tom Watson in the Senior PGA Championship.

Permit me to suggest a reality check. Firstly, Funk's surgery was on his right knee which, as any club golfer knows, takes considerably less strain than the left one, even with a gentle swing. And by the athletic standards of Woods, Funk is a smooth, controlled striker of the ball who, according to current statistics on the Champions Tour, settles for average drives of 263.3 yards.

Woods, on the other hand, is attempting to compete with prodigious hitters such as Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Robert Garrigus and JB Holmes, for whom drives in excess of 300 yards require no more than a gentle swat of the big stick. According to experts, the suspect Woods left knee has to withstand stress no less than four and a half times his body-weight as he shifts to his front leg on the downswing and then twists the knee on the follow-through.

At this stage, I should state an interest. As the recipient of a full replacement of the left knee in January 2003, I can say with assurance that, competent as the surgeon's work was, the end product is not as good as the one God gave me. In fact, is it quite limiting, especially in terms of flex.

And while I won't dare compare my attempts at golf to those even of a skilled amateur, the new knee poses obvious problems. Like an inherent fear of damaging the joint. This was manifested in repeated fresh-airs on my return to the game, as I inadvertently lifted the club at impact, for fear of jarring the leg. Now that it is more than eight years old, the old pain has returned, especially during cold, winter months.

Doctors learn to avoid absolutes. So in my pursuit of a medical view as to whether Woods could function successfully with a new left knee, the response was predictably guarded. But it was pointed out that the procedure has not undergone any significant improvement since my surgery. And that the athleticism of the modern professional game is light years removed from the sort of strain I would be generating as a handicap player. As an American medic put it: "Guys can play (golf) with total knee replacement, but not at the level Tiger Woods has performed."

We're told the average knee replacement has a life-span of about 10 years. With this in mind and given that Roy Keane's damaged knee was a popular topic at the time of my operation, I wondered how long a new knee would last him in the cut and thrust of Premiership football. The surgeon smiled. "About a season," he said.

When I discussed the physical toll of modern rugby with Brian O'Driscoll, he remarked: "We don't yet know how long a career a player can have as a professional, but the demands on the body are increasing all the time." It may be that we are looking at a similar situation in tournament golf.

Nicklaus and Miller managed to cope with physical problems. But could it be that Woods is to become the first celebrated victim of a relentless pursuit of power on the fairways? His damaged left knee looks set to provide us with the answer, possibly before this season is out.

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