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Woods’ shot at record a memory

I get the man’s optimism. Why can’t this be like 2008?

And so Tiger Woods gathered everyone around over there in Hoylake, England, this week, and said, listen, back surgery ain’t nothin’ but a flop wedge into a green slower than a politician’s conscience. Stuff heals, ya know. That’s the cool thing about stuff.

“I’ve been in circumstances like this,” he said this week as he prepared to play the British Open at Royal Liverpool, where he strip-mined the joint for an 18-under 270 in 2006 and won by a couple of strokes. “If you remember in ’08 I had knee surgery right after the Masters. I won a U.S. Open. I didn’t play more than nine holes and the Sunday before the U.S. Open I didn’t break 50 for nine holes and still was able to win it in a playoff …”

Key sentence in all that: If you remember in ’08 …

Because, yeah, it takes some memory.

In ’08, Woods was 32 and the absolute master of everything he surveyed, stacking up majors like cordwood and sending everyone into cringe mode every time he unholstered his driver. He was indisputably the greatest golfer of his generation and perhaps of all time, and he had the perfect wife and the perfect kids and a father – his anchor, his rock – who was still living.

Well. We all know what happened after that.

His anchor and his rock died just before Woods took Royal Liverpool apart. Then the perfect wife took a perfect iron to his SUV. There were all those strippers and more injuries, and, yes, a few more years on the odometer …

And now here he is, 38 and coming off back surgery. Talking a good game as ever, but older now and plainly spooked by the majors, and going up against a lot of wicked young sticks who see him these days as more an historical figure than anything else.

And Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, which once looked to be so legitimately Woods’ property he might as well have been carrying it around in his wallet?

That’s as safe as a cheeseburger in a vegan colony.

Woods still has enough game to win another major or two, maybe even this weekend, though it’s unlikely after four months away. But five more is a visit to the land of what-have-you-been-smoking.

Fact is, he’s the same age Nicklaus was when Jack won the British Open in 1978. Nicklaus won just three more majors after that, the last an Auld Lang Syne stroll through the pines at Augusta in 1986 when he was 46 years old. It was his only major after 1980 – and he didn’t have a bad back and bum knees and shoulder and ankle issues.

Woods has all of that, plus the gnawing doubt that comes when you can still win the occasional Greater Velveeta Open but haven’t copped a major since, well, 2008. Which might be just six years ago, but feels like eons.

So, yeah, he’ll tee it up again today. And the sport and the TV suits will celebrate, because he’s still the man who spikes the ratings even if he’s increasingly more golf’s past than its present. And maybe, on a course that’s greener and more lush than the baked plain he played in 2006, he’ll find something green and lush in his game again, too.

But he’s still a 38-year-old man who’s started to have back problems.

Ask any golfer if those tend to go away the older you get and the more you play.

And then ask this: Who’s next to challenge Jack?

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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