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How Tiger evolved as a player, as his body and power devolved

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – In golf there is no precedent for what Tiger Woods has accomplished.

Jack Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at 46 years old, but then the Golden Bear never danced with as many surgeons as Woods. Ben Hogan played his way back to Grand Slam glory after enduring a nearly fatal car crash, but competition and competitive requirements weren’t the same back then.

In the modern game, Woods’ comeback is nothing short of a medical miracle and something of an outlier in golf, if not all of sports. Perhaps the closest thing to a kindred spirit cropped up a few years ago when Tiger crossed paths with Peyton Manning.

Manning was fresh off multiple neck surgeries and had just been released by the Indianapolis Colts in 2011.

“I said, ‘How’s it feeling?’ He said, ‘Not that great.’ How many push-ups can you do? ‘I can do six push-ups,’” Woods recalled on Tuesday at the PGA Championship. “[Manning] won a couple MVPs, Super Bowl, all with a fused neck. That’s ridiculous. It goes to show you how talented he is and how smart he is.”

Sound familiar?

Woods went on to explain that because of Manning’s loss of strength he had to reinvent himself. What Manning could no longer do with physical prowess, he adjusted by spending extra time preparing and reviewing game film. It was an apropos interpretation for a player who has essentially done the same thing.

The days of marathon practice sessions are gone for Tiger. On this the proof is in Woods’ actions. He took nearly two full weeks off after winning the Masters, bypassed what many considered would be his next logical start at the Wells Fargo Championship, and has opted for a light load this week with just two nine-hole practice rounds.

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Woods’ body and fused back simply can’t endure like it used to. Instead of long days pounding drivers he now largely limits his practice to working on his short game and hitting wedges. For a 43-year-old who forged a career with an unparalleled work ethic and undeniable force of will that’s no small thing.

Like Manning, Woods evolved. It’s a lesson in how some become a prisoner of changing realities while others find a workaround.

“I don’t know how sore I’m going to be the next morning. I don’t,” Woods said of day-to-day life. “That’s the fickle nature of having my back fused. Some days I have more range of motion. Some days I don’t. Some days I ache more, and sometimes I don’t. There’s more days I feel older than my age than I do younger than my age.”

Nowhere is Woods’ competitive transformation more evident than at Bethpage Black. He was a big man and Bethpage was a big course in 2002 when he won the U.S. Open on Long Island.

When Woods won that ’02 championship on the municipal masterpiece he was among the game’s most powerful players, just as he was when his title run came up short in the ’09 U.S. Open at Bethpage.

That won’t be the case this week. The cold and wet Black Course is more than 200 yards longer than it was in ’02 and no amount of technology or time in the gym can change that.

“No. 7 (a par 4) has been lengthened quite a bit since the first time we were here. I remember hitting 3-wood and a 7-iron into that hole. Yesterday I hit driver, 5-wood, and 3-wood and didn’t get to the green,” Woods said. “When we came here in 2002, this was one of the biggest ballparks you’ve ever seen, and it’s only gotten bigger.”

Meanwhile, Woods’ game has settled into something that’s more methodical. He’ll never be confused for a plodder - he still has far too much pop remaining for that - but his situational awareness, particularly at the Masters where he won his 15th major, has become telling.

Padraig Harrington watched the Masters with a particular interest, explaining that after unsuccessfully trying to hit a draw off the tee on Nos. 8, 11 and 13, Woods reverted to a more comfortable fade off the tee down the stretch.

“I love the way he played the last five holes where he just played golf to win,” Harrington said. “He hit a fade off the 14th, he hit a fade off the 15th when you’re trying for a bit of distance. He was just getting the job done and winning the tournament. He wasn’t interested in proving to the world that he’s a good driver of the ball. He just was interested in getting the job done.”

In many ways his victory at Augusta National perfectly fit the new model of play for Woods. There were no heroics like we’ve seen in previous victories, no real crucial moments when he made a clear statement, just steady play while those around him faded.

“I’m not going to say it was just like old times, no. It was very different,” Woods said of his fifth Masters victory.

This new brand of golf still has elements of his former greatness, most notably an iron game that remains the gold standard and a mental toughness that’s not been dulled by time or injury, but it’s unquestionably different. Like Manning, Woods has evolved as an athlete. He’s made natural adjustments, concessions for age and injury, but the competitor always finds a way.