Woods: Billion-dollar talent, dime-store legs?

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Tiger Woods‘ post-scandal career is increasingly taking on the shape of a slice. It’s veered farther and farther offline since the moment his SUV slid out of control at the end of his driveway, and it just took another turn for the worse. Golf is hard enough to play from the middle of the fairway. From the rough, it becomes impossible soon enough.

Withdrawing from The Players Championship, as Woods did after just nine holes _ and count ‘em, 42 strokes _ is no big deal. Players pull out of tournaments all the time. But while speculation about his erratic play the past two seasons zeroed in on Woods‘ psyche, and then his swing, what’s genuinely troubling is the very real problems with his legs.

Woods already had had four surgeries on his left knee dating back to his freshman year at Stanford in 1994, ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right leg, and then strained the same one in his left. The way he described the sequence of aches that led to Thursday’s withdrawal _ “just a whole chain reaction” _ called to mind something said about baseball great Mickey Mantle at the end of a career that could have been greater, not to mention longer.

To paraphrase: He was a billion-dollar talent undone by dime-store legs.

After lagging behind his playing partners for much of the front nine, then walking gingerly off the course, Woods said, “The more rest I get, the better it would be, obviously. It’s a big event. I wanted to come back for it and play, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to finish.”

A lone setback or two, as we noted, would be easy to shrug off. But this looks ominously like the beginning of a pattern.

It’s not just that Woods has been treated or operated on a half-dozen times in the last three years, or that he withdrew on the seventh hole of the final round at the same, hilly TPC Sawgrass course a year ago because of a neck problem.

More to the point is that Woods turned 35 late last December, an age when even Jack Nicklaus and just about every other championship-caliber golfer was already cresting the hill. And don’t forget: Woods has been swinging a club almost nonstop since the day he climbed down from a high chair and began pounding golf balls into a net alongside his father.

For the longest time, that headstart and his almost superhuman ability to shut out distractions were credited with turning Woods into the greatest champion of his era. He broke into tournament golf swinging with all the abandon of a kid, yet hitting the ball so flush that when he finally stepped up to the pros, Woods was routinely 30 yards or more longer off the tees than any of them. While his rivals were deciding whether to lay up or risk trying to land a 4-iron softly on tabletop greens at par-5s, he was taking dead aim at those same flags with nothing more than an 8- or 9-iron in his hands.

For a while, it hardly seemed fair. At every tournament he turned up, it felt like everyone else there was playing for the “B” flight championship. Those same rivals began copying his off-course regimen _ practicing longer, working out harder, and in the case of the generation behind his, starting out earlier _ yet made up only so much ground.

But the gap closed once revelations of Woods‘ off-off-course regimen hit the tabloids and TV shows. And save for a few scintillating stretches of golf here and there, nothing has happened since to suggest Woods is going to run away from the field again. Either way, it won’t be for long.

Plenty of those youngsters he inspired to take up the game now unceremoniously blow their drives far past his. Just as important, they weren’t around to feel the withering pressure that goaded so many others into costly mistakes the second his name began roaring up the leaderboard. The only time they saw Woods make every putt that mattered inside 6 feet _ and some from twice that distance when it mattered most _ was on TV. Think back to the closing nine holes at this year’s Masters and how, instead of choking, winner Charl Schwartzel and a handful of younger players responded with a barrage of birdies.

So where Woods‘ head is at, or how far along the curve he is on yet another rebuilt swing, seems a secondary concern at the moment. The more immediate problem is at the other end of his body. A variety of golf-swing gurus have been warning for years that all those violent passes at the golf ball would eventually take their toll.

The only milestone left in the game for Woods, Nicklaus’ career-record 18 majors, once resembled a walk in the park. Now, not only do the parks seem a whole lot less friendly, just getting around them is beginning to look like anything but a given.

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