When Tiger Woods won the 2006 British Open shortly after his father, Earl, had died, the first of those he hugged after walking off the barren links at Royal Liverpool were his then-wife, Elin, and Keith Kleven.
The Las Vegas physical therapist was a point of tangency in Woods’ inner circle. He transformed golfers from 98-pound weaklings into finely chiseled athletes, and no golfer was more finely chiseled than Woods.
Keith Kleven died May 30 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease. He had just turned 76. He worked with giants from other sports, such as Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, boxers Mike Tyson and Larry Holmes and tennis ace Andre Agassi.
His long relationship with Woods began shortly after UNLV golf coach Dwaine Knight tried to recruit the golf legend. Before becoming physical therapist to the stars, Kleven was physical therapist to the UNLV golf team that won the 1998 NCAA national championship — two years after Tiger Woods won the individual title playing for Stanford.
“I can remember Tiger when he came on his visit — he wanted to go by and see Keith,” Knight recalled. “When he had the bad knee and won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, it was Keith who kept him together.”
It’s in the bag
In addition to whipping bum knees and rotator cuffs into shape, Knight said Kleven provided the Rebels with physical fitness tips that others probably would never think of.
“He taught us how to take a (golf) bag out of the trunk correctly, little things like that,” Knight said with a chuckle. “So many guys would get hurt pulling their bag out of the trunk of a car.
“He was such a big part of Rebel golf, and such a big part of sports in Las Vegas. He was a big part of us winning the national championship. We worked out all those years at his facility, and we saw the greatest athletes in the world come through there.”
Including the Baddest Man on the Planet. You had to get up early to catch Mike Tyson, Knight said.
“We would start 5:30 or 6 a.m., and Tyson would be in around 3 o’clock in the morning — I think that kept him from staying out too late because those workouts were pretty tough,” Knight said. “It was amazing the people you’d see walking through those doors.”
Jack Sheehan, a local golf enthusiast who played at Oregon as a teammate to Peter Jacobsen, said he could have benefited from Kleven’s expertise had it been available then.
“He worked with Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, athletes from track and field, basketball, NFL — all sports. He developed this reputation as a guy who could bring you to a higher level,” Sheehan said of the 2005 Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
“It became like going to Lourdes for a mission. People would come from all the world to his little enclave.”
Many who pilgrimaged to Las Vegas were golfers. Former Masters and U.S. Open champion Mark O’Meara might have been the first, Sheehan said.
“When friends of mine were turning pro in the ’70s and ’80s, pumping iron was still thought to be a bad thing. Keith Kleven turned that notion on its head. Look at the typical touring pro. You think of Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Keopka — these are guys not ashamed to take their shirt off at the beach.”
Kleven was born in Salt Lake City, attended Brigham Young on a wrestling scholarship, finished his studies at Southern California, was an assistant professor at Eastern Washington and has endowed a scholarship at UNLV, with a big assist from Tiger Woods.
His wife, Mary, said he practiced what he preached — he always put his StairMaster on the highest setting. He liked to ski and he loved helping people, including those outside of sports, regain their quality of life after being injured.
“Little miracles,” is how Mary Kleven described her husband’s savant-like talent on a training table.
Making an appointment with Keith Kleven was like having an insurance policy from Allstate. You knew you were in good hands.
“Of all the people I knew as far as doctors and everything, every now and then you run across one who has the gift,” Knight said. “You could go in, and Keith would examine you, and he knew what to do. He definitely had the gift.
“He had those healing hands.”