Golf / Sports

Tiger Woods pays price, learns lesson from physical invincibility of his youth

BETHESDA, Md. -- When he was young, Tiger Woods trained more like a triathlete than a golfer.

He made weightlifting a priority before his peers on the PGA Tour saw much value in it. He ran 30 miles per week, and was surely no plodder. In 2007, he spent four days with a special operations regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C., participating in workouts that included four-mile jaunts in combat boots.

Yet as he continued to come back -- from three knee surgeries, including reconstruction in June 2008 from injuries to both ACLs, from a bulging disc in 2010 -- Woods never lost his air of physical invincibility.

His body was sending him signals that Woods failed to heed.

It wasn't until March, when he said he couldn't get out of bed because of nerve impingement in his back that was shooting pain down his leg, that Woods finally listened.

Undergoing back surgery on March 31 that kept him out of competition until June 26, Woods insists he's finally coming to terms with his physical limitations and realizes the mistakes he's made in the past. He turns 39 on Dec. 30.

"I remember all the early years on tour when I used to run 30 miles a week and just push it, no matter how hurt I was," Woods said June 24 before the Quicken Loans National, the tournament that benefits his foundation, at Congressional Country Club. "I would go out there, still logging all the miles and do all the different things and still play tournament golf.

"I was winning, but I didn't realize how much damage I was doing to my body. Now I have to pick my spots when I can and can't push. Now I've got to listen to my therapist and get treatment. When I was younger, I didn't need it. So my knee ached a little bit, 'So what? I'll just run more miles and it will magically go away, just get the endorphins going.' That's no longer the case. Listening to my body, that's one thing I have learned stubbornly over the years."

This week as Woods returns to the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, a $9 million event at Akron's Firestone Country Club that he won for the eighth time last year. There are some who wonder if Woods can really change his mindset. Observers of the game aren't sure Woods can adapt his workout routine, change his tournament schedule or shut down completely when his body barks back.

His peers know it's a reality not easily embraced.

"I think most guys would probably say they would have liked to have tuned into that a little earlier than they did," Stuart Appleby said at Congressional. "At the same time, you're trying to drive forward. If you've got a flat tire, there's no point in trying to put your foot down. You've got to pull over and get it sorted out."

Appleby, 43, concedes he's had more injuries in the past four or five years than he had in the previous 20.

"Guys in their 40s need to practice smarter," he said. "Make sure the body's ready and maybe the mind even more."

Ernie Els, 44, came to the point where he had to listen to his body and not push it as hard. He said he's paid more attention to conditioning and flexibility as he gets older. He was also forced to change his swing after blowing out his left knee in 2005, which required two surgeries.

"I've never really been a gym rat like some of the other guys, but in recent times I've taken it a bit more serious and that's really helped," Els said at Congressional. "If you can't turn, you're not going to be able to hit the ball a long way, so flexibility is huge. Strength, you've got to put that back in to try and keep up with the younger guys. And then with your feel and your chipping, there's so many tangibles in golf that you've got to keep it at a high level, otherwise you fall behind.

"Health is No. 1. The healthier you can be, the longer you can be out here. But it really plays on your mind."

That's not just a mental struggle for the 40-somethings. Jason Day, 26, has played only nine events in 2014 because of an injury to his left thumb. After winning the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship on Feb. 23, he sat out seven events before the Masters. After that, he skipped six more before the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, close to his home in Westerville.

"The biggest thing I learned was to not mess around with the injuries. Just get on the plane and go see the best guy," Day said before the Quicken Loans National. "I may have shortened my three months down to a month. You're sitting there going, 'When is my thumb going to get better? Would this be a career-ending injury?' I just didn't know.

"When you're sitting there by yourself on the couch watching the guys play golf on TV every Sunday, things like that go through your head, and you're probably your own worst enemy. You're playing things constantly through your head that are not good things."

Woods said he watched more World Cup soccer than golf during his time off post-surgery. But he could have battled some of the same mental doubts, especially since he remains four major championships shy of his long-held goal, the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus.

The 2008 U.S. Open was his last major triumph. After winning five times in 2013, his best finish this year is a tie for 25th at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship on March 9. The surgery forced him to miss the Masters and U.S. Open; he's in danger of failing to qualify for the FedExCup playoffs and being left off the U.S. Ryder Cup team. His $108,275 earned in five events stood 196th on last week's money list.

"This is very different than pushing through my knee injuries in the past. I couldn't play through this," Woods said at Congressional. "There were days when I would go out and practice and 'It's just not quite right; let's get treated, re-evaluate, come back the next day and see where we are.' Next day, felt great, 'Can we go back another 10 yards? Yeah, we can. Perfect.'

"If I wouldn't have listened to my body, I wouldn't have been able to do that. In the past, I probably would have pushed through it and set myself back and then kept pushing harder and harder and harder until stuff breaks."

(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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