Next After The Knee
Will he be better than ever, or have we seen his best? The secret to Tiger before and after the injury
Tiger Woods and Anthony Kim are squared off, just as everyone would like to see them in 2009.
The setting, of course, isn't the final nine of a major but a clinic on a shimmering October day off the Pacific. Kim is hitting the shots while Woods—his celebrated left knee still on the mend—faces him from a few feet away and does the commentary. Tiger is holding a club, but his last full swing remains a 9-iron approach to the seventh green at Torrey Pines on the 91st and final hole of the 2008 U.S. Open, back on June 16.
Kim, 23, casual and confident but also concentrating, is striping it. He's got speed, his swing plane is perfect, and the sound of club against ball and ground is the aural definition of flush. It's the action that in July produced a closing 65 at storied Congressional to win the PGA Tour event Woods hosts and made Kim the first American under 25 to win two events in one year since ... Woods. Kim is the guy who Woods' über-mentor, Mark O'Meara, contends has better technique than Woods had at the same age. And succession fetishists can thrill to the fact that there's a decade difference between the two, as with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and Nicklaus and Tom Watson.
"Pretty pure there," says Woods, watching another 3-iron. "Seriously, you missed a shot yet?"
"Just lucky," answers Kim, the compliment turning him shy.
Enjoying his role as relative elder statesman, Woods jokingly wonders, "Maybe I should stay retired."
Woods clearly likes Kim, a former wild child who has straightened up. Tiger has encouraged him the way he once did with Sergio Garcia, the way he never has with Phil Mickelson or Vijay Singh. The two have an easy banter. They are both from SoCal, both with Asian heritage, both with enough authentic athletic chops to feel occasionally boxed in by golf. When Kim arrives at the event wearing a white belt with "USA" in red, white and blue rhinestones, Woods cries, "Give it up!" Later, when Kim tries to convey to the assembled how lucky he feels for the chance to learn face to face from "a guy who has won 10 majors," the holder of 14 tilts his head in disbelief and intones, "TEN majors?" After Kim responds with a shrug, Woods plays the offended purist. "Come on!" he yells. A couple of beats later, still comically appalled, he says it again, only louder: "C'mon!"
Kim laughs with everyone else, content for now with the notion that anything that doesn't help him get the ball in the hole quicker can only clutter his mind. Though as an adolescent he drew inspiration from watching a Tiger video, his feel-oriented, right-brain approach contrasts sharply with the analytical Woods. "I just have to let my body take over and not let my mind ruin what my body is capable of doing," Kim explains. Woods is all about understanding cause and effect.
"When I was a kid, I was the kind who really bugged my parents with 'Why?' " Tiger says. "And they always had to have a good reason, because I would analyze it, and if it wasn't a good reason, I'd ask, 'Why?' again. If I don't know why, then how in the hell am I going to fix it?"
The character trait revealed in this last sentence is the raison d'être of Woods' Hoganesque approach. He has always believed he has an edge against players who would rather not know why, and when Kim is imprecise in explaining his ball positions for various shots, or confesses that he plays a fade because a draw makes him nervous, or sneaks a look at the sole of his driver before saying "8.5" to a question about its loft, it isn't a stretch to surmise that the "Anthony Kim: Possible Weaknesses" file in Woods' head is getting thicker.
Still, this is Woods unplugged. Below the hem of his shorts, a vertical surgical scar along the left knee that was operated on June 24 is revealed, but any trace of a limp—or a game face—is gone. His past two weeks have been devoted to promotional work. Along with corporate schmoozing and interviews, it has meant watching a lot of bad golf, especially from the man who won Woods as a caddie for nine holes at Torrey Pines but was so nervous he barely spoke to his cart mate for the first four holes. Yet at the clinic, Woods betrays no impatience and specializes in icebreakers. Sidling up to 15-year-old Seth Jones, whose father, Jason, is playing in the pro-am, Woods notices the teenager's braces and, remembering his own orthodontic ordeal, grabs a packet from the snack table and deadpans, "Beef jerky?"