- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The apple on the 16th tee was what did it for me. Tiger Woods had just fallen behind Rocco Mediate in their U.S. Open playoff - after leading by three a mere five holes earlier - and here he was munching on a … could it be? Yes, Johnny Miller, I’m pretty sure that’s a Granny Smith. You can tell by the green color.

At that point in an Open playoff, most players wouldn’t even contemplate solid food. Not after five days of grinding, five days of excavating their ball from ankle-deep rough, five days of the USGA’s sadomasochism. (And in Woods’ case, five days of gimping around following recent knee surgery.)

Oh, they might help themselves to some liquid refreshment - some Gatorade Tiger, say, if not a shot of Jack Daniel’s - but it’s unusual at such a stressful moment that someone thinks to himself: Snack time!

After all, you didn’t see Mediate whipping out any peanut butter sandwiches, a la Al Geiberger. Mostly, you saw him spitting a lot, as if he had a bad taste in his mouth he couldn’t get rid of, maybe acid reflux. The only way you could have fed Rocco at that stage, I figure, is intravenously.

And let’s for forget, the 16th hole is a par-3, and Woods had been a disaster on par-3s all day - bogey at No. 3, bogey at No. 8, bogey at No. 11. The fourth and final par-3 at Torrey Pines, a 227-yarder backed by the abyss of the Pacific Ocean, might be the most nausea-inducing of the bunch. So, hey, why not chomp on an apple?

But then, as we’ve been reminded over and over again during Tiger’s triumphant career, he’s not like other golfers. Adam - a respectable 16-handicapper in the Garden of Eden - took a bite out of an apple and had to spend the rest of his life playing municipal courses. Tiger, on the other hand, gnaws on a Granny Smith, and here’s what he does the rest of the day:

cHits all four fairways.

cHits all four greens in regulation.

cSends the playoff into sudden death with a birdie on 18.

cLeaves two other birdie putts just short - and smack in the center of the hole.

cWins his third Open with a regulation par while Mediate is visiting a fairway bunker and a free-drop area.

This after climbing in and out of sand traps for much of the first 14 holes. This after uttering every curse he ever learned from his late father Earl, the Special Forces soldier and world-class cusser.

Anybody for an apple?

Poor Rocco. Some athletes, alas, are destined to ride in the sidecar of history. Had he been pitted against anyone but the Greatest Golfer of All Time, his name would likely be etched on the Open trophy and his life changed forever. Consider: He and Tiger both carded 71s on the first 18 holes Monday - the first time two players have shot par or better in an Open playoff since 1947 (Lew Worsham and Sam Snead).

As often as not in these playoffs, one of the finalists implodes; sometimes both do. But Mediate matched Woods swing for swing, red shirt for red shirt. He just didn’t match him chew for chew.

At the end, we Washingtonians, among the most supportive fans in golf, were left to wonder the following:

Does this mean we won’t get to see Tiger play in his Fourth of July tournament at Congressional, the AT&T; National?

Does this mean his left knee needs more time to recover - not only from the operation but also from abuse it took at the Open?

The answer to both questions is probably yes (if you read between the lines of Woods’ noncommittal responses).

And if so, then woe is us … but only temporarily. Tiger’s still a young man, just 32 in Earth years. We’ll get to watch him - in the flesh - plenty, presumably, before he’s through.

Here’s another question to ponder, though: Might Woods, the spokesman for laser eye surgery, eventually become the spokesman for knee replacements, too? Might he become the golf version of Bo Jackson, who roamed major league outfields with an artificial hip?

This is the third time he’s had his left knee repaired, and I’m hard-pressed to name another golfer - a top-flight one - who’s had the knee issues he’s had. Back problems are fairly common, and shoulder injuries come up from time to time. But three surgeries on the same knee … by the age of 32? (And none of them, moreover, stems from a pre-existing condition, such as an old football hurt. These are cartilage tears caused by the way Tiger wields a club.)

Of course, if anybody could play championship golf on a titanium knee, Woods could. Just as if anybody could win the U.S. Open on one leg, he could. But it’s not a thought you want to entertain, not with Tiger entering what could be his best years (as they were for Jack Nicklaus). You’d rather he became the spokesman for, oh, the Apple Growers of America. So far, though, an apple a day hasn’t kept the orthopedist away.

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