Tiger's future leads to a summer of speculation
SAN DIEGO (AP) Paul Azinger answered his phone during the final round of a U.S. Open that attracted a prime-time audience, the Ryder Cup captain among those camped in front of the TV.
"I'm watching my show pony," he said, referring to longtime friend Rocco Mediate.
Asked what he thought about his Secretariat, there was a slight pause.
"I'm a little worried for him," Azinger said while watching Tiger Woods flinch, grimace, limp and hit a career's worth of clutch shots at Torrey Pines. "Not for the Ryder Cup. I just hope he's not doing anything to create a long-term issue for himself. That's my concern."
Woods seems to have everyone worried.
The countdown toward Jack Nicklaus' benchmark of 18 professional majors began in earnest three years ago when Woods won the Masters in a playoff and reached the halfway point with his ninth Grand Slam title.
But when he picked up No. 14 with a playoff victory Monday at the U.S. Open, looking into his future was like summer in San Diego. It can be so foggy you can't see the Pacific from the bluffs, or clear enough to see across the ocean to La Jolla Cove.
"I think I need to shut it down for a little bit," Woods said. "I pushed it pretty hard this week, and I just want to enjoy it. And we're going to reevaluate after this event and see what happens."
What does that mean? How bad is his knee? How severe was the pain?
Only Woods knows, and he's more tightlipped with an injury report than Bill Belichick.
The Buick Open next week is most certainly out, and probably his own AT&T National at Congressional the week after. Even the British Open at Royal Birkdale, where Woods missed out on a playoff by one shot in 1998, is up in the air.
Woods is expected to expand on his immediate future later this week.
In the meantime, this surely will be a summer of speculation.
Perhaps it was only fitting that Woods cradled his daughter in his arms before handing Sam Alexis, who turns 1 on Wednesday, over to his wife. As he was piling up majors at a staggering rate, conventional wisdom said that only three things could keep Woods from breaking Nicklaus' major record - marriage, children or injury.
He handled the first two just fine. But he has had three surgeries on his left knee, two in the last five years.
"We've got to get this fixed," one member of his camp said quietly.
After going 91 holes to win at Torrey Pines, someone brought up Ben Hogan's victory in the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, which came 16 months after a near-fatal car accident. As injuries ago, there is no comparison.
"Geez, he was in the hospital and he didn't know if he was ever going to walk again," Woods said.
But there is a worthy comparison in their schedules.
Hogan never played more than nine times a season for the rest of his career. He won three of the four events he played in 1951, including the U.S. Open and the Masters. He won all three majors he played among eight tournaments in 1953.
This was the second time Woods returned from a two-month layoff due to knee surgery and won at Torrey Pines. The other was the 2003 Buick Invitational, and swing coach Hank Haney spoke of a huge difference that had little do with firm greens and thick rough.
With Woods, everything comes down to preparation.
"He's done this before - laying off - but he didn't do it without preparing," Haney said. "That's what made me apprehensive. That's why this is the greatest win he's ever had."
Woods had not played a full round since the Masters until eight days before the start of the U.S. Open, and that was in a cart. Then came more cart golf in Newport Beach, followed by nine holes of walking on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. He didn't walk 18 holes until the first round at Torrey Pines.
As far as practice time, Haney said Woods never tested himself on anything but an even lie. Haney was asked if Woods might follow that routine before going to Royal Birkdale, if he plays.
"Hopefully not," Haney said, breaking into a thin smile. "But he proved he could do this, too."
Woods has played only seven times through the U.S. Open, the most abbreviated schedule of his career. That he already has won five times worldwide and leads Phil Mickelson by nearly $2 million on the PGA Tour money list illustrates how wide the chasm is between No. 1 and everyone else. This is the 500th week that Woods has been atop the world ranking, and his 14 majors are one more than the rest of the top 20 combined.
But where does he go from here? And when?
Unless his knee heals quickly - or he finds the doctor that helped Paul Pierce climb out of a wheelchair in two minutes - Woods might have to decide between two cups at the end of the season.
Ryder Cup or FedEx Cup?
In a typical schedule, he would play two FedEx Cup playoff events, take a week off, then go consecutive weeks at the time-consuming Ryder Cup and the Tour Championship.
Based on what happened at Torrey Pines, it's doubtful he can play four times in five weeks.
Under a retooled points system, Woods could not sit out three playoff events and win the FedEx Cup not the end of the world since he didn't even bother kissing the cup last year.
Does he pour everything into the Ryder Cup?
Woods loves the competition of the matches, but loathes everything else about that week. He might have a convenient excuse to sit this Ryder Cup out. Imagine the no-win situation Europe would face playing an American team without the world's best player.
Who knows? Woods might up doing his team a favor.