This week, Tiger Woods will do something he has not done since 1994, the summer before his freshman year at Stanford. He will watch the first round of the U.S. Open on television.
I was thinking about that over the weekend. Mostly, I was thinking about what Woods might be thinking Thursday when, because of a troubling knee injury, golf's national championship begins without him.
Here's one thing I think Woods might be thinking as he fiddles with the remote control: Maybe I shouldn't have played in the 2008 U.S. Open after all.
Make no mistake, highlights of that Open will be shown at some point during this year's telecast from Congressional Country Club.
To refresh your memory: Woods had announced in the lead-up to the 2008 tournament at Torrey Pines that he had a hinky left knee but was healthy enough to compete. Then he went out and, grimacing after many swings, won the event in a dramatic 19-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate.
Given the cynical nature of sports, there were murmurs throughout the tournament that Woods was embellishing his pain to psych out his opponents and wasn't really hurt that bad.
Those of us who followed his group each round inside the ropes knew that those insinuations were a crock. Television close-ups did pick up Woods' winces and cringes. But if you were up close, standing at the tee boxes or walking alongside, you could see the strain even more as he limped--or fought with teeth clenched to keep from limping--especially when walking downhill.
After it was over, Woods basically came clean to reporters and said something that I think many people have forgotten, but I circled in my notebook as I wrote it down: His physicians had actually recommended that he not play at Torrey Pines. They feared long-term ramifications. Specifically, they had warned him that he might injure the knee worse by playing.
"I'm not really good at listening to doctors' orders," Woods explained with a smile. "So I end up ... hey, I won this week. So it is what it is."
But had he indeed done further damage to the joint, someone asked?
"Maybe," Woods said.
Two days later, he underwent reconstructive surgery for a torn ligament and double-stress fracture of the left knee.
So, yes, maybe.
And now, after four surgeries on that knee, you seriously have to wonder--and no cynicism involved here--whether Woods cooked his own intense competitive goose back in 2008. You have to wonder if his decision to override doctors at Torrey Pines will forever doom his chances to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships, the one enduring goal of Woods' life. He's currently stuck on 14.
Considering how secretive Woods tries to be about everything, including his medical issues, there is no way to know exactly how poorly his knee is functioning, or how badly it is damaged, or if that 2008 decision set in motion the problems he has today.
Initially, there were no alarm bells. After his post-Open surgery and eight months of rehabilitation, he came back and won six tournaments, then had his infamous car accident and marriage meltdown.
He has not won a PGA event since. He has not won a major title since that 2008 Torrey Pines wince-fest.
The stance in this corner has always been the same: While never rooting against Woods, I wanted it to be very difficult for him to surpass Nicklaus. Because I knew how hard it had been for Nicklaus to win those 18 majors. After watching the early ones as a teenage fan, I had covered several as a journalist.
I had seen the concentration and stamina it had taken to sustain such excellence over the years. I had interviewed too many of his peers who spoke worshipfully of Nicklaus in a way I've never seen Woods' contemporaries speak of him.
Back when Woods was winning so often--four straight majors at one point--and making shots that no one had ever made, the temptation was to write that he would easily leave Nicklaus in the dust and go down as the best of all time. I never would go there. Too soon. Too premature. Too bad I was right.
There's no doubt that Woods will return to the golf course and will win tournaments again. But with a swing that puts so much pressure on that left knee at the front of his stance, Woods surely can't be dominant week after week again.
He might even need knee-replacement surgery eventually. He has to be thinking about that. He has to be pondering how the knee will feel next year at this time, when the Open will be played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
But mainly, as Woods holds the remote control this week, it has to be killing him that he's not at Congressional, firing at the pins. He understands that the Open is the hardest major to win, so his three titles in the event must be precious to him. During the 2008 trophy ceremony at Torrey Pines, Woods called the victory "probably the greatest tournament I've ever had."
Let's hope it is not the last great tournament he has.