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After proving he's perfect, Tiger has to change

Boswell: To understand the challenges and perils, many running to the core of Tiger Woods' personality, that will face him as he tries to resume his place as the greatest golfer who ever lived, we must also look at the entire progression of decisions that Woods has made for almost the past year.
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When Tiger Woods and his buddies are lifting weights and approach exhaustion, somebody always asks, "How many more repetitions?"

"The answer is always, 'Four,'" Woods said on Monday after winning his third U.S. Open. "That's four as in 'forever.'" And he laughed.

That laughter, full of ambition, ego, bravery and perhaps pathology, is the soundtrack in the parallel universe of Tiger Woods. It's a world shared by the rare people in every other occupation who, for whatever reasons — some noble, some nuts, some both — always rebel at limits and push beyond. Beyond what?

As Marlon Brando said, when asked what he was rebelling against, the answer is always the same: "Whatdaya got?"

To fathom what Woods did at the U.S. Open, winning his national title over five days while playing on a left leg that had a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and two stress fractures in the tibia, in addition to recovering from surgery to remove cartilage eight weeks earlier, we have to go back in time 10 months.

To understand the challenges and perils, many running to the core of Woods' personality, that will face him as he tries to resume his place as the greatest golfer who ever lived, we must also look at the entire progression of decisions that Woods has made for almost the past year.

Then, perhaps, you'll agree with two conclusions. First, given his lose-lose options once he learned of his stress fractures, Woods made the right decision to gut out the U.S. Open — a win that produces even more chills now, in retrospect, than it did in real time.

Second, however, we will see how a whole sequence of decisions has demolished Woods' left knee — the one that absorbs the torque of his ferocious swing — to the point where, in the words of swing coach Hank Haney, "by last week there wasn't much left to damage, frankly."

The lesson Woods should, perhaps, take from this episode is that, while his U.S. Open courage was magnificent, his attitude toward preserving and protecting his body must change or the rest of his career may be half of what it should be.

As Woods walked the fifth hole Sunday, a fan yelled, "No pain, no gain." Sounds romantic. But remember Seve Ballesteros' back. By 35, he was history.

The red flag that began this magnificent melodramatic mess was waved in Woods' face last summer. For the first time in his career, his body offered up a menacing challenge to his own sense of limitlessness, to own destiny. His ACL had a "spontaneous rupture." It didn't snap in an accident. "Ping," it just wore out, as he was running near his home in Orlando. Yet the injury wasn't a surprise. Woods was told 10 years ago that he had a "deficient ACL." He could have exercised less stressfully — swim, stationary bike. But he liked to run. So he did.

Tiger could have had surgery quickly, requiring the same six to eight months of rehab that he will face now. But despite constant discomfort-to-pain, he didn't. Instead, he won five of his next six events, including the PGA Championship, his 13th major. His concession to the injury was to skip a customary trip to play in Asia and rest his knee more before the 2008 season. "The hope was to have the ACL done after the '08 season," Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent, said Wednesday.

For Woods, sports history has always bent to his will, in part because his body has never known the difference between "four" and "forever." Why mess up '08? Why risk missing the Open on your favorite boyhood course, Torrey Pines, a track you own? Or bypass a chance for revenge against Europe in the 2008 Ryder Cup?

But the knee disagreed. It hurt more often, probably, though not unequivocally, because of the ACL damage, according to Steinberg. Yet Woods won four of his first six events to start 2008 despite the pain.

Still, Tiger got the message. The knee was getting worse. It had to be scoped, washed out, immediately after the Masters. "The date for the surgery was set well before the Masters," Steinberg said. "Nothing new happened at Augusta."

After surgery on April 15, Woods had six weeks before Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament and eight weeks before the U.S. Open. You're allowed one guess at how Woods did his rehab. Yes, at full "forever" bore.

Before the Memorial, Woods felt a sharp and different pain. "Pretty soon it became excruciating," Steinberg said. An MRI exam showed the double stress fracture. The cure: three weeks on crutches, three weeks of inactivity, then rehab.

Add up those weeks. Woods would miss the Memorial, the U.S. Open, the Buick, his own AT&T National in Washington and presumably the British Open. Then, with luck, he'd return, with four months of accumulated rust, to defend his PGA title. And, having "come back," he couldn't skip the patriotic Ryder Cup. So that ACL surgery, which still had to be done sometime, might jeopardize the 2009 Masters.

What a disaster: A ruptured ACL that goes unfixed probably leads to cartilage damage, which leads to surgery, which leads to (probably excessive) rehab, which leads to a fresh bend-you-over-in-pain double stress fracture. What do you do?

"The doctor wasn't too encouraged about him playing in the Open," Steinberg said. "It wasn't that he could do extensive new damage to the knee. The doctor just doubted anybody could stand the pain."

To which Tiger said — cue the Greek chorus — "I'm playing in the Open. And I'm going to win."

Not only did Woods win but, with a sense of honor worthy of Bobby Jones or Nicklaus, he kept his secrets. He didn't upstage the USGA or his two-day playing partner Phil Mickelson by making headlines. Instead, he just threw a 30 at Phil on their last nine together.

He didn't steal Rocco Mediate's one great hour of a lifetime by making himself an even bigger underdog. What vicious but effective gamesmanship that would have been. Oh, Tiger limped and grimaced and, at least twice, looked like he might not take another step. He knew some players were calling him "Oscar" for his performance and that some in the media doubted that a simple arthroscopic procedure could be so painful after two months. But he kept mum.

Until Wednesday. Now, the sports world wrings its hands. Should Tiger have played the Open? Will Woods ever be the same?

There's no reason this saga can't have a happy ending. If Woods will listen to his doctors and learn to count to "four," not "forever." Stress fractures heal. NFL players recover from ACL surgery routinely. So, by next year, there's no reason on earth that Woods' left leg shouldn't be good enough to play great golf.

That is, if he reworks his swing a bit so there's less insane torque on his left knee. And if he swings slightly less hard so he's merely monstrously long, rather than epic. Can Tiger Woods, at 32, after punishing golf balls — and his body — since he was a toddler, accept that he's not indestructible?

Why not? It's the right shot to play.

Now, though 48 hours after the fact, the 108th U.S. Open finally makes sense. And, suddenly, rises in stature as it does. What do we think of Tiger's final-nine 30 on Friday now? What about those two eagles and a chip-in birdie on the back nine to take the lead on Saturday? What about overcoming four double-bogeys, three of them on the first hole? And, of course, making birdie on the 18th hole on both Sunday and Monday when nothing less would suffice.

Did Woods just hand us the greatest performance in U.S. Open history — all 91 holes of it, including a playoff after a playoff? Absolutely. Thanks, Tiger. We'll never forget it.

But please, promise you'll never do anything like that again.