Will Tiger Woods make a full recovery from the knee-surgery that cut his 2008 campaign short? Anthony Kim said it best, “He’s not going to be worse.” Those expecting a lower gear will be disappointed when Woods unveils the 3.0 version sometime this spring.
What’s not as easily dismissed is Woods’ ability to weather the emotional uncertainty that is part and parcel with the prognosis and pain and procedures. Just ask Larry Nelson.
In 1984 Nelson was fresh off his U.S. Open victory at Oakmont, his second major haul in three years, when his right knee inexplicably began hurting. Surgery followed three months later and the doubt arrived shortly after the anesthesia wore off.
All total, Nelson’s career has been something of a series of medical miracles bookended by spectacular play.
A wrist ailment nearly derailed his golf dreams in the early 1980s. He was sidelined for 12 weeks this year with a finger injury and his Champions Tour career was delayed three months in 1997 because of a nerve injury in his neck. Although it is a dubious distinction, Nelson concedes he is something of an expert in dealing with the psychological and physical fallout that comes with injury.
“(In 1997) I didn’t know for sure if I was ever going to play again,” Nelson said. “The amount of time it takes to come back, that’s the depressing part. But if you really want to come back you will be OK. But you never really know.”
Woods’ swing coach Hank Haney spent a few days with Woods in late December and said the knee and swing looked good, if not a little rusty, and the 14-time major winner gave the golf world reason to be optimistic last month when he said his recovery was ahead of schedule.
“I'm actually stronger in my legs than I think I've ever been,” Woods said during last month’s Chevron World Challenge. “But still, you have to understand the healing process of the ligament. The ligament is only going to heal so fast, and you've got to be responsible for your actions, and I can't stretch that out.”
Davis Love III has also walked a similarly uncertain path. Prior to his 20th Tour victory at the season-ending Children’s Miracle Network Classic, Love had plummeted to 68th in the World Golf Ranking, the result of a left-ankle injury that limited his play in 2008.
The recovery process, Love has learned, works at an exceedingly slow pace, and there is no rushing the outcome.
“The torque that we put on our bodies, especially our lower bodies, that's why (Woods) is being so patient and going to have to be careful when he comes back,” Love said. “Tiger's knee is probably ready for a lot of stuff, but it's not ready for Tiger Woods' swing.
“That's the thing that’s going to be hard for Tiger, to pace himself back into it. As soon as they give us a ball and club, it's hard for us to not hit it. You got to work your way back into it.”
Work has never been a problem for Woods. But the injury has injected a degree of perspective into Woods’ portfolio. For the first time in his professional career, Woods has endured a brush with his own professional mortality.
“I could totally understand walking away from the game. I don't want to play when I know I can't play at this level,” Woods said. “That definitely gave me a better appreciation for my future and leaving the game of golf competitively.”
But as rumors swirl about Woods’ possible return to the competitive fray, it becomes clear the twilight can wait. Recent reports suggest he could be ready in time to defend his title at next month’s WGC-Match Play Championship and he talked about his explosive swing in almost reverential terms last month in California. After years of trying to play with a “soft leg,” Woods’ rebuilt ACL seems stable enough to withstand that 150 mph action.
“I did a lot of things to compensate for this leg, and just in the last couple weeks to be able to hit fuller shots, it's stable,” Woods said. “It was like, hey, this is what people actually play with; this is kind of nice.”
Physically, the man who endeavors to out-work his competition seems destined for a stronger, pain-free 2009. Whether the strongest mind in the game took a hit remains to be seen. But given the world No. 1’s resume, Kim’s assessment seems about right.
“I doubt very seriously there is any question in (Woods’) mind he will be back 100 percent. You always have that mind set,” Nelson said.