June 13, 2008

Can Tiger and the Knee Do It One More Time?

It was another Tiger Woods moment, several in fact, and it's their frequency that makes him incomparable

Will Sunday be "Bury the Field with Wounded Knee?"

Will Sunday be "Bury the Field with Wounded Knee?"

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- I know the comparisons are still flying, because what Tiger Woods did in shooting 70 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead into the final round of the U.S. Open was so ridiculously like a bad sports movie where the hurting hero--Rocky Balboa, Roy Hobbs, Dave Stoller, even the Black Stallion--somehow gets it done.

In terms of real-life sports, the time-honored dramatics of Willis Reed, Kirk Gibson and Kerri Strug will be mentioned. But while no one ever thinks of golf as blood and guts, in terms of a direct comparison, Woods was probably most like Ben Hogan during the late stages of the final round at the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, where The Hawk's car-accident-damaged legs got so weak he had to hang onto a friend to stay erect. He would go on to win in a playoff to set the gold standard for golf heroics.

Woods also had a Tom Watson moment on the 17th when the chip from the greenside rough went in, although the luck involved was more akin to Birdie Kim. The eagle putts on 13 and 18 evoked Arnold Palmer charging during his peak. The contented countenance and in reaction to the final putt was Michael Jordan beating Utah.

Of course, they were all Tiger Woods moments, and it's their frequency that makes him incomparable.

"No other human would do something like that," said Rocco Mediate, who played behind Woods in the third round. "And he did it three times coming in."

Still, the predominant issue in my mind is whether Woods will have the physical tools to play championship golf on Sunday.

Watching Woods take full swings late in his round was wince-inducing. The problem was so obvious that even the secretive one admitted for the first time that his knee--which was operated on to repair damaged cartilage two days after the Masters--was not just increasingly sore, but actually impairing his ability to perform.

"It does affect it," Woods told Roger Maltbie after the round. "There are certain shots that I'll feel it. And you can't say it's the drive, you can't say it's the wedge, because I don't know which one it's going to happen on. But if pain hits, pain hits. So be it. It's just pain."

Just pain is one thing. But an injury that affects function, or worse, does damage to the future, is a whole other matter. During the first two rounds, Woods would show pain, but it was on shots like the 350-yard drive he hit on the 18th on Thursday. Late Saturday, his tee shots were getting crooked and shorter, and on 18 he resorted to hitting two soft cuts with swings that presumably put less pressure on the joint.

Still, Woods has never seemed the type of athlete to jeopardize his career for short-term success. And although no one in the Woods circle would be specific, the best guess of various expert observers is that the source of the pain is pinching within the joint due to swelling, and not a reinjury or any other structural damage.

It appears that Woods' most important challenge on Sunday will be to steel himself during his pre-shot routine for the twinge (or worse) he knows will come. "I just keep telling myself that if it grabs me and if I get that shooting pain, I get it, but it's always after impact," he said. "So just go ahead and make the proper swing if I can."

Sounds simple, but I think it's fair to say it makes this third round lead the most fragile of his career. The MVP may end up being his trainer, physical therapist Keith Kleven. If Woods comes out stiff and has a bad pre-round practice session like he did on Saturday, he will be tempting fate. He's gotten away with two double bogeys on the first hole; he can't afford a third.

If Woods ends up winning easily, he will be accused of pulling a Paul Pierce. My guess is that just like a bad but inspiring sports movie, he'll have a desperate battle on Sunday but get it done in the end. Perhaps his 14th major championship (and seventh pro victory at Torrey Pines) will be remembered as "Bury the Field With Wounded Knee."