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Tough to deliver without Woods

August 21, 2008|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

As further proof that the PGA Tour season didn't end when Tiger Woods had reconstructive knee surgery in June, the $63-million FedEx Cup playoff series starts today with the $7-million Barclays at Paramus, N.J. The show goes on, but the showstopper isn't around.

No, Woods is famously absent, his return date is largely uncertain, the television ratings are in a free fall and the health of the tour he left behind is still to be determined.

When Woods said last week that he wasn't going to be physically able to swing a club until 2009, warning bells started ringing in tournament offices from coast to coast, not to mention the PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

What if Woods can't play until March, or April? What if the FedEx Cup and its ratings fizzle without him?

That's way too much to start worrying about, said Ty Votaw, executive vice president for communications and international affairs for the PGA Tour.

"Tiger's presence enhances any tournament, but the playoffs are structured to provide compelling competition . . . even when [No.] 1 or [No.] 2 of the top 10 are out."

Neither Woods nor second-ranked Phil Mickelson played all four of the FedEx Cup playoff events last year, when Woods emerged as the champion and claimed a $10-million bonus.

As for entering the 2009 season with its top draw, meal ticket and star attraction still on the shelf, Votaw said there are others who have proved they can fill in nicely, such as Padraig Harrington, Anthony Kim and Sergio Garcia.

"I think some people may be surprised at how resilient the game can be," he said.

While that may be true, Woods' coach said the FedEx Cup series can't avoid being harmed at least in some way because of Woods' absence.

"Too bad about the ratings, but he's the most recognizable athlete in the world," Hank Haney said. "But right now, it doesn't look great, does it?"

Haney said speculation that Woods would return by the Buick Invitational the first week of February may be misplaced.

"If you can't swing a club until after the first of the year, I don't know how he makes that one," he said.

Haney said Woods is riding a stationary bicycle and has lowered his body fat to 7%. Haney is convinced that Woods will follow a conservative route in his rehabilitation and that when he returns, he'll have a strong leg again.

But there is a different view, one that contends that Woods isn't going to be the same when he returns.

"The sport has to be ready to accept a different Tiger," said Neal ElAttrache, director of sports medicine at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic.

"To prolong his career, he may have to make some concessions. He may have to alter his swing somewhat. He's going to have to adapt significantly to his situation. If he doesn't, his career is going to be short-lived."

ElAttrache, the Dodgers team doctor and a consultant for the Lakers, said that Woods' unique, powerful swing features a left pivot leg that assumes the force of the impact and torque and is likely to be an area of concern after the ACL surgery.

That's probably not even Woods' greatest worry, said ElAttrache, who mentioned the condition of the surface cartilage in Woods' left knee that has been surgically repaired four times since 1994.

ElAttrache said he would expect Woods to cut down on his playing schedule and perhaps play only the 15 events necessary to retain PGA Tour playing privileges.

"Swing after swing, his body has to withstand that one, then the next one, then the next tournament and the tournament after that," he said. "His knee is a lot older than he is. There's very little reserve in that knee."

Notah Begay III was Woods' roommate at Stanford when they played on the golf team and remains close to his Cardinal teammate. Begay said he knows Woods well enough not to underestimate his drive, even after injury.

"After what he did at the U.S. Open, they're scratching their heads in wonderment," Begay said. "Having known him nearly 20 years, he continues to ask more of himself."

Coming back from injury is a tricky thing, even if your name is Woods, or Mickelson. Last year, Mickelson missed months after damaging his wrist hitting out of deep rough in practice at Oakmont Country Club to get ready for the U.S. Open.

He wound up missing the cut, but played hurt.

"People forget about that completely," said Dave Pelz, Mickelson's short-game guru. "His wrist hurt so badly, he shouldn't have played. He's really worked hard and changed his body this year. He worked out, got stronger and he's just now starting to play well in his new body.

"I think he's going to be better than he's ever been."

With a far more serious injury, Woods can only hope for the same forecast. But a faster return to his prime, or something approaching it, is still in debate.

"He's not going to be over this injury for another year after he comes back," Ernie Els said at the PGA Championship.

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