James Lawton: Painful break shows Tiger's body can take only so much

It may not happen that Tiger Woods ever again feels the surge of conviction and physical well-being which led him to claim that winning the Grand Slam, all neatly parcelled up in one calendar year, is an ambition he can quite reasonably set himself.

Indeed, it could be that yesterday's announcement that he will miss the rest of the season for reconstructive surgery on his deeply wounded left knee is more than anything a sombre warning that the human body, even one as fastidiously sculpted and maintained as the Tiger's, sometimes has an inclination to set its own limits on quite what can be achieved.

This is a shocking thought for anyone who finds the theatre of modern golf unimaginable without its most thrilling and profound actor. But then it does help to define further the meaning of his astonishing career – and the stunning integrity of his performance on the cliffs of Torrey Pines earlier this week.

Because it is in the nature of the world we live in now, and the values that have accompanied instant celebrity within the touchlines and fairways of sport, there was an inevitable whiff of scepticism about the degree of hardship Woods endured when he won the US Open, and his 14th major, on the first hole of sudden death after his 18 holes of play-off with the resilient veteran Rocco Mediate. Oh, yes, the Tiger suffered a little bit, but with the help of adrenaline and pain-killers he was able to laugh his way profitably to the soothing hands of the world's most expensive healers.

We have a somewhat different picture now, however. The price of his third US Open, anyone who has ever seen Tiger Woods gather himself up with the onset of the highest form of competition must know, has been revealed to be sickeningly high.

For the Tiger to go until the end of the season without the cold edge of tension that comes on the back nine of a significant golf tournament is rather like a hedonist being condemned to the cell of a monk. It has been claimed that a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine. Woods will see this time without the rush of competition as the bleakest of sentences, at least in the rush of his most life-giving emotion, the heady realisation that another prize is at his mercy. Intellectually of course, he is bound to listen to his doctors and the word now could scarcely be stronger. If he is to claim his destiny as the greatest golfer the world has ever known, if he is to march past the record mark of Jack Nicklaus's 18 titles with, say, a decade to augment a unique and unsurpassable place in his sport, he must undergo the most painstaking rehabilitation.

It could be that the task has been made just a little more onerous by the punishment inflicted by the heroics which stretched over five days in Torrey Pines. Was he right to risk serious aggravation of his knee problem?

It is an academic point now, already as redundant as to ask whether Sugar Ray Leonard was right to fight after suffering a detached retina. Golf and fighting are, of course, widely different disciplines, but in this case they do come together in the question of resolve and determination.

When Woods was winning his latest major he didn't have to contend with the withering punching power of Marvellous Marvin Hagler, but he did have to await searing pain every time he picked up his driver. He also had to wonder whether the glory of the moment should sensibly be bartered against the uncertainties of the future.

Already it was part of golf history but its place is surely strengthened by yesterday's news. The Tiger has to set his US Open win against his absence from the The Open and the USPGA tournaments and, no doubt least taxing to his spirit, the Ryder Cup. Yet who wouldn't say that if the action of today is stimulating enough there is a tendency in most men of action to believe that tomorrow may well look after itself.

In the Tiger's case tomorrow is suddenly a rather long time away and his impoverishment is also ours. Still, it is not as though we will be without warmth when the rest of golf gathers at Royal Birkdale in a few weeks' time to see what it can make of a brief inheritance of the Tiger's empire. We will still have, fresh enough, the memory of the California days when Woods elected to live for the moment, however painful that might be. Surely, it is enough to carry us through to the season's end. But then, God forbid that it should be longer, not even by a day.

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