Heading to the Disabled List

Tiger Woods opts for surgery on his troublesome left knee, but hopes to be ready to play at the Memorial

Tiger Woods

A fist-pump at last year's PGA Championship may have added to Woods' knee woes.

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April 25, 2008

When his left knee buckled at last year's PGA Championship, Tiger Woods wouldn't admit he hurt himself. It was a little embarrassing considering the limp developed after his fist-pump celebration of a birdie on the eighth hole at Southern Hills. It would have been out of character for Woods, an athlete who trains as if he were in Delta Force, a man who has parachuted out of planes and loves running around Isleworth in Orlando with a weight vest in sweat-dripping heat, to admit to a weakness. "As far as hurting myself, no. All good," Woods said that day in Tulsa after winning his 13th major championship.

Woods seemed invincible at the time, at the height of his power both mentally and physically -- but when the story broke the Tuesday after the Masters that Tiger had had his third knee surgery since 1994, it came as a shock in several ways. Although it is true Woods limped at times in tournaments during last year's PGA Tour Playoffs and took a long time getting out of the bunker on the fourth hole during the final round at Augusta National two weeks ago, few suspected anything significant. The circle of people who knew Woods had elected to get his knee "cleaned up" was so small, several of Woods' closest advisors didn't know.

Neither did Woods' Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup partner, Jim Furyk. "As a friend, I didn't realize he was hurting," Furyk said from the Verizon Heritage. "I didn't realize his knee was bothering him. I didn't realize he was having surgery. I read about it in the paper."

Others, including PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, knew Tiger was in pain. Instructor Hank Haney acknowledged that Woods was having a lot of trouble, but added, "He doesn't like to talk about stuff like that. He doesn't want to use excuses, you know?" Charles Howell III, who sees Woods on the range at Isleworth, also was aware Tiger had been favoring his left knee. "I knew he was playing through a bit of pain, but he's tough," said Howell. "He's not going to let it get in the way of him playing and trying to win the Masters."

The hush-hush operation, performed by Dr. Thomas Rosenberg in Park City, Utah, was deemed a success -- but there was some cartilage removed this time, an indication the knee is deteriorating under the torque Woods puts on it. So while his passing of Jack Nicklaus' major championship record was considered a mere formality after his win at Southern Hills just last August, there is now the haunting question in the back of everyone's mind about whether the fragile knee could become Tiger's Achilles' heel.

While Woods will be out four-to-six weeks, skipping a title defense at the Wachovia Championship and a shot at the Players, he should be fine for the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in June. He is expected to use the Memorial late next month as a warm-up. "It's the long run that everybody is still thinking about," said Stewart Cink at the Verizon Heritage. "It's the majors, the FedEx Cup, the Ryder Cup. He'll come back strong again like the last time."

Woods' left knee and surgery aren't strangers. In 1994, while a student at Stanford, Woods had a benign tumor removed. In late 2002 Rosenberg, an orthopedic surgeon, drained fluid from around the anterior cruciate ligament and removed a benign cyst. Woods returned to action at the 2003 Buick Invitational, won it and then two of the next three events he played. But last week's procedure raised the specter that Woods will have knee issues the rest of his career.

While the problem is not career threatening, experts are saying this will not be Tiger's last knee operation. "This is something that's a chronic issue for him," Neal ElAttrache, a noted orthopedic surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't know if you've seen the last of surgical issues with Tiger's knee."

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