Sport Golf

Sunday 17 December 2017

Tiger paying the physical toll for the muscular violence of his swing

Woods may come back, but will we ever see his dazzling talent return?

Tiger Woods withdrew from a scheduled comeback in this weekend’s Safeway Open at Silverado in northern California.
Tiger Woods withdrew from a scheduled comeback in this weekend’s Safeway Open at Silverado in northern California.

Dermot Gilleece

Some months past his 11th birthday, Tiger Woods had decided that life simply couldn't get any better as he stood on the tee of a 290-yard par-four. Suddenly, a 12-year-old rival in the World Junior Championship unleashed an amazing shot to drive the green. "That's the only time I've ever been intimidated on a golf course," Woods recalled, 20 years later.

Those words adopted a disturbingly fresh resonance through his shock withdrawal from a scheduled comeback in this weekend's Safeway Open at Silverado in northern California. It was to have been the re-launch of his tournament career after an absence of 14 months.

In a statement to the PGA Tour on his late, late change of heart, Woods made the stark admission: "After a lot of soul-searching and honest reflection, I know that I am not yet ready to play on the PGA Tour or compete in Turkey. My health is good, and I feel strong, but my game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be."

Back in August 2015, a closing 70 for a share of 10th place behind Davis Love in the Wyndham Championship prompted speculation that he was ready to win again. Instead, he announced a month later that he had undergone microdisectomy surgery to correct a pinched nerve in his back, and would be out of action for a year. That was when his close friend Notah Begay revealed an awareness in Woods that "the sun is setting" on his career.

From his earliest days on tour, expert medical observers had warned that he was heading for serious physical problems because of the muscular violence of his swing. The great Australian Peter Thomson remarked: "He's not a rhythmic swinger. He's what the Americans call a slugger. In other words, he gives it everything he's got."

Thomson went on to explain: "When he tees off with that two-iron, he hits it as hard as he possibly can. This seems totally absurd, given that he has two clubs in his bag, the driver and three wood, which would send it just as far with three-quarters the effort."

The first indication I observed of imminent back problems was when the American Express Championship returned to Mount Juliet in 2004. That was when every 'ouch!', 'ow!' and 'ah!' from Woods during what was clearly a very uncomfortable first round for him brought to mind one of Spike Milligan's frequent excursions into glorious lunacy.

Explaining how he had come to the aid of a seriously injured man, the comic said: "Well, he began screaming in agony, which I happen to speak fluently."

By way of explaining his recourse to the language of pain, Woods told us that the damage in his upper back, causing shooting pain between this shoulder blades, had been the consequence of sitting awkwardly in his private aircraft.

After his last Major triumph - in the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines - Woods underwent reconstructive surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. It was a complete success, as indicated by seven tournament wins in a remarkable 2009. This time, however, he happens to have turned 40 - and the back is different.

Johnny Miller could appreciate that difference, and, in attempting to read the player's mind, he highlighted the extent to which lasting hurt can be done by adverse media comments. Which was his own experience in 1977, when he was missing cuts in a generally lean spell only a year after capturing the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

"This magazine ran on the cover 'the marketing of a loser'," he said. "There's so much pressure when you can't deliver what you used to. You've got to go back in there; go back to basics and try to make cuts. And it's 10 times harder for him being Tiger Woods. But then, to whom much is given, much is expected."

For all his undoubted talent, it's not difficult to imagine Woods experiencing the anxiety of an iconic stage actor returning to the boards after a lengthy absence. Indeed, he may well be downright scared, given that he repeatedly declined requests from American players to hit shots on the practice ground during the recent Ryder Cup. His manager Mark Steinberg admitted last week: "The game just wasn't there."

This led Miller to suggest: "It must be like when he played as a kid in his first LA Open. It's hard being Tiger Woods - it really is. Everybody expects him to come back and play like the year 2000 (when a dominant Woods captured three Majors). But that's just not going to happen."

In the light of recent events, I feel especially privileged to have been at Pebble Beach in 2000 when Woods won the US Open by a staggering 15 strokes. Tom Watson later described it as the greatest tournament performance in the history of the game.

In the wake of that triumph, Woods was asked: "How good do you think you are?"

His reply, which now takes on a certain poignancy, typified a great sportsman, conscious of setting his own standards. "I'll try to keep improving and I will probably have a better understanding when I'm 60 years old," he said. "By then, I would be able to look back at my peak and how long my prime was. You really don't know until you go through it."

A month later, when he swept to his first Open Championship triumph at St Andrews, Royal and Ancient captain Michael Bonallack was moved to comment: "It was my first chance to watch him closely. He played ultra-safe for the first nine holes of the last round, then cut loose. He has total control, is a great striker of the ball and is highly intelligent."

Will we ever see him in tournament action again? I believe we will - if only for the need of something to occupy his time. Which, of itself, suggests that a faded talent will offer only a reminder of how good he once was.

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