Tiger Woods' coach Hank Haney gives John Huggan the inside story on how world No.1 put his body on the line to play and win the US Open
THE ANNOUNCEMENT, when it came, was no surprise. For anyone – apart from Retief Goosen, apparently – who witnessed, either at first hand or on television, the obvious pain and discomfort suffered by Tiger Woods during last week's US Open at Torrey Pines, it was clear that the world's No.1 golfer wasn't going to be doing what he does best again any time soon.
There he was, suffering from residual cartilage problems, a left knee missing an anterior cruciate ligament and, as it turned out, two stress fractures of his left tibia, still kicking the collective butt of what passes for his competition these days. Amidst all of the fuss caused by his winning a 14th major title, this was the ultimate knee – oh the irony – in the you-know-where for the rest of golf's elite. If they cannot beat a wounded Tiger playing on one leg, what chance do they have when he returns fully fit?
Of course, that Woods was able to play to such a high level en route to his third US Open win – in so doing he followed Jack Nicklaus in completing three Grand Slams – is perhaps the biggest tribute he could ever pay his coach, Hank Haney. With so much of his focus concentrated on the pain wracking his body, Woods could surely not have won without being able to rely completely on a swing now so grooved he seems to have little or no need of technical thoughts, under even the severest pressure. So it is that the relative slowness of Woods' play last week can largely be attributed to his steeling himself before each shot: he knew it was going to hurt.
Strangely, this gutsy aspect of what was the best US Open in years has been lost amidst the flurry of ill-informed opinion that has been bending our ears since Tiger's website released the inevitable news of his knee-induced sabbatical.
It has been hard to count the number of 'experts', few with any sort of medical background, who have trotted out to comment on whether or not Woods will ever again reach the heights that have so enthralled us over the course of his 12-year professional career.
The sensationalistic nadir, however, was the appearance of former European Tour player Mark Roe on Radio Five Live. Despite the contention of more than one doctor with vast experience of similar knee injuries that Woods will return to full fitness within six to eight months, Roe declared that there is now 'a cloud' over Tiger's career and that 'he may never be the same again'. Based on what exactly? Nothing more than a narcissistic desire to appear on the radio perhaps?
One of the few people with an insider's knowledge of the situation is the aforementioned Haney. Like the rest of us, the Dallas-based swing guru watched in awe as his star student played his way through the pain barrier with a display of golf that, not surprisingly given his physical limitations, veered erratically from sloppy (four double bogeys and four three-putts) to sublime (two eagles and a chip-in birdie over the last six holes of his third round).
"Tiger was unbelievable really," says Haney. "I've never come close to seeing anything like the show he put on last week. Going in, I didn't know what was going to happen; I certainly didn't know how he was going to win.
"Three weeks before the US Open he couldn't walk. It was about then he started hitting balls and trying to play a little bit. I watched him practise. He would hit four or five balls, then limp to the cart for a rest. He'd sit down for a few minutes, then limp back to the balls and hit four or five more. That was all he could do.
"At that time he was insistent that he was going to play in Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village. I just shook my head. 'Bud,' I said, 'how are you going to do that? You can't even walk.'
"His feeling was that he had to play in the Memorial because he was so rusty. But he couldn't walk from the kitchen to the dining room table without bending over, he was in so much pain. So there was no way he could play."
With the Memorial proving a tournament too soon, Woods' mind then shifted to the possibility of making it to the US Open.
"He started playing a little bit, but never more than a few holes at a time and always in a cart," recalls Haney. "In fact, he didn't play more than 72 holes total between the Masters and the US Open. When we went to Torrey Pines the weekend before the tournament I told him he had to try and walk at least nine holes. Just to see if he could do it.
"So I drove the cart and he walked nine holes. He made it, but only just. I was asking him if he could bend down to read putts. He said, as he always does, 'I'll be all right.' But I made him do it. So he tried. He could get down okay, but he had to lean on his putter to get back up again. Even then he was still saying he'd be all right!
"Anyway, he walked nine holes on the Sunday, then nine more on the Monday. And he couldn't hit more than 50 balls on either day. Whether he was going to play was in doubt right up to the last minute."
What was truly astounding Haney, however, was that the pair even made it to San Diego. Having witnessed first-hand the saga that has been Woods' left knee since it was operated on for a third time just after the Masters, he was well aware of the long-established problems. As is Woods, of course.
In his book, How I Play Golf, Woods describes how he used to deliberately 'snap' his left leg through impact. It is more than likely that such an action, especially over a sustained period and given the number of balls Woods routinely hits, caused the initial damage to the ACL.
"That was really what made Tiger decide to change his swing," reveals Haney. "One of the first things he told me was that the knee snap he had worked on had to go, because it was hurting his knee."
The damage had apparently already been done, however. Even with a markedly new and more efficient method, the pain in the knee has never really gone away, as Woods confirmed this past week when he looked forward to being 100% fit for "the first time in a decade".
Specifically, the real problem turned out to be the ACL rather than cartilage-related, as was first thought. Although Woods could walk forward with little discomfort, any kind of twisting brought with it more pain.
"What was saving him was the enormous strength in his hamstrings and quads," says Haney. "They were compensating for the problem in his ACL."
Just to add to the difficulties, the stress fractures in Tiger's left tibia were discovered during his limited preparations for the Memorial. At which point his doctor flew down from Salt Lake City and ordered an MRI scan of the leg.
"So now he has no ACL and a broken leg," says Haney. "I asked the doctor what the normal protocol is for someone in this situation. He said Tiger would be on crutches for three weeks and that it would take six weeks to heal.
"At that point you have to wonder how much atrophy will be involved. He's going to lose even more strength. And he's going to miss the whole season pretty much.
"We asked if he could do more damage by playing in the US Open. And he couldn't, given that the ACL was gone already. But the doctor told him the pain would be incredible. As soon as the doc said that, Tiger told him he was going to play in the US Open and that he was going to win. I thought he was out of his mind. He has no ACL and a broken leg and he's going to play in the US Open in three weeks? His reaction was, 'let's go practise'."
For a few days that preparation involved nothing more than putting. Then, the week of the Memorial, Woods was fitted with a knee brace designed to take some strain off the joint. But it wasn't a success. While the brace allowed him to hit balls with much less pain, he also couldn't hit them very well. "He was horrible," is Haney's smiling comment.
Despite all of the above, Woods not only went to the US Open, he fulfilled his own prediction and won, a feat comparable with the 1950 victory of Ben Hogan, only 16 months after nearly losing his life when a bus careered into his car. It was little wonder that, in the immediate aftermath of victory, Woods called this his "greatest ever win".
As for the future, Haney is confident his pupil will return better than ever.
"Tiger has to think long-term at this point," he maintains. "He doesn't have any choice. He needs to get his strength back. I don't think he was at 50 per cent strength at the start of last week. And it went down every day. Eventually, he would just shut down and not be able to play at all.
"He thought he could make it through the year. But he can't. The good thing is he'll come back better than brand new. There are two ways to fix what he has. You can put in a ligament from a cadaver. Or you can graft in part of the hamstring to make another ACL. Both involve about six to eight months' recovery. And you are at your weakest at three to five months. So there is no way to rush it. It doesn't matter how much he works out.
"In three months he can start putting. But the twisting involved in the full swing will take longer. I'm still in shock that he won. I can't believe it. To play with that kind of injury is incredible enough. But to win is off the charts. He knows it too. It has to be his biggest accomplishment so far."
Whether it is or not, it will have to do us until the end of the year at least. Phil? Adam? Geoff? Ernie? Make the most of it lads. He'll be back, probably by the time of his own event in California just before Christmas. Which is just the sort of present a Tiger-starved golf scene may need by then.