Tiger Woods' high stakes gamble paid off but it may be years until we know the ultimate cost. As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Tiger Woods will not play golf for the rest of 2008 due to a torn ACL in his left knee and a double stress fracture in his left tibia (lower leg)--injuries that he overcame to win the U.S. Open after 91 agonizing, brutal holes. That moved Woods one major win closer to tying Jack Nicklaus' all-time record but knee surgery and the ensuing recuperation process will force Woods to miss at least two majors. Basically, Woods took the bird in hand--a major that he felt confident that he could win on one leg--over the two in the bush. It is only fair to wonder, though, if Woods' grit, stubbornness and determination may end up costing him many birds in the bush.
While announcing that he will need reconstructive knee surgery, Woods revealed that he tore his ACL 10 months ago. Since that time he won 10 of the 13 events that he played in--never finishing lower than fifth--and he added two majors to his trophy case. The delay in getting his ACL repaired resulted in cartilage damage and that was the reason for his April 15 knee surgery, a stopgap procedure that Woods hoped would help him make it through this year. That plan fell apart when it was later discovered that he had stress fractures in his left leg. If Woods had gotten his ACL repaired immediately then he probably would not have sustained the cartilage damage and the stress fractures. He truly made a Faustian bargain with the older version of himself, betting that the young, hobbled version of himself has a better chance to win majors than an older, not hobbled version would.
Perhaps he was right; as noted above, he won two majors despite not being 100% healthy. However, if Woods develops nagging knee or leg problems that shorten his career or curtail his dominance he may one day look back on his memories of winning while limping and wonder if he would not have been better off listening to his doctors, who told him he should be on crutches instead of playing golf.
An athlete's body is like a finely tuned machine and when one part is not functioning at 100% that places tremendous pressure on the other parts. Woods generates tremendous torque with his powerful drives and he literally has ripped his left leg apart in multiple places. Modern surgical procedures can most likely repair the damage for now but a rebuilt body part is never as sound or functional as it originally was. Also, whatever it is about his swing that caused this damage will inevitably place pressure on his knee and lower leg once he resumes playing. If Woods is not able to change his swing without reducing its effectiveness then he will most likely have a recurrence of this problem in a few years.
The reality is that for a great, supremely confident athlete like Woods no other choice was possible: the same self-assuredness that convinced him that he could not only tolerate the pain but play well enough to win the U.S. Open also is why Woods undoubtedly believes that next year he will come back fully healthy and better than ever. I sure hope that he is right. I don't know the ins and outs of golf strategy the way that I do about basketball, football and other sports, but I love watching Tiger Woods play because I recognize in him the same focus, will power and skill set mastery that only a select few--guys like Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice--possess. It would be a shame to see Woods cut down in his prime.