Tiger Woods: Still a Chance?

By Wayne | blog

As you know Tiger Woods just underwent his 4th back surgery in the past 2 years (he has now caught up to me in the race no one wants to win), and by now most of the pundits are thinking that he is done and will never compete on a high level again, certainly not anywhere near the level he demonstrated from the early nineties to 2013. I happen to disagree with that assessment, and I will tell you why. The thing that most people who have not had back problems don’t understand is the difference between pain and limitation. A player of Tiger’s caliber can learn to play with limitations. If his body won’t do as much of what it used to do he can still adapt his swing to what his body will allow and play great golf. However, if the basic movements required to make a good swing cause pain, the body simply will not allow itself to be injured and thus it will stubbornly refuse to function in the manner the player wants it to. Tiger has been trying to alleviate his pain with the less invasive surgeries he has undergone up to this most recent one. It hasn’t worked out because even the minimum amount of stress he has put on it trying to play has eventually brought about pain, and with pain the muscles spasm to protect the area from further damage, and that’s the end of the attempt to play. Now that he has undergone a fusion to stabilize the spine and remove the faulty disc, he has a chance to eliminate the nerve pain caused by the narrowing of the nerve root openings. This is a big deal. My guess is that his surgeons have recommended a fusion procedure for some time, but the word “fusion” itself is kind of scary. Tiger probably felt like he could beat the problem with smaller measures, but after this last failed attempt at coming back he finally saw the writing on the wall and opted for the more drastic fix.
The key is this: if Tiger can play pain free he can figure out how to play within his limitations and can compete at the highest level. Ben Hogan is a great example of just such a scenario. Hogan was playing the best golf of his life in 1948 and early 1949 when he was hit head on by a bus while driving back to Texas from a tournament. He suffered multiple serious injuries and almost died of blood clots a few weeks after the accident. He underwent a radical procedure to tie off one of the main arteries to his lower extremities, and had to soak in a hot tub for two hours and wrap his legs in ace bandages before every single round. In addition to the blood supply problems Hogan also suffered a fractured left collarbone, a double ring fracture of the pelvis, a broken left ankle, a broken rib, and several deep cuts and contusions around his left eye. All of this served to shorten Hogan’s career (he essentially retired in 1955, 6 years after the accident), and he never played in more than 6 events in a single year after 1949, but due to his determination and technical knowledge he could play through whatever pain he felt and was able to modify his swing so that while he was not as powerful, he was perhaps even more precise. Hogan won 6 majors between 1950 and 1953, and came close in others. I see no reason why Tiger, if he can rid himself of the stinging nerve pain and muscle spasms that follow, can’t pull a Hogan and make a great comeback. He may not need the money, but he certainly has the drive to continue to compete and win events. He will not give up, and this next attempt to make a comeback will again be something to watch.

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(3) comments

Jack April 26, 2017

I suppose Tiger might derive satisfaction in winning future majors with a “B” game – which for him will be his new “A” game – due solely to physical limitations. Assuming it is realistic, is that really enough for Tiger? Sounds dubious to me. I’m not sure if Tiger would be happy with just barely winning a major by a stroke (or in a playoff).

But is it really even realistic? If Tiger has a physically limited “B” game, and that would likely be obvious to his competitors, who among those top tier competitors is going to be intimidated by competing against Tiger? The prior “domination” factor always seemed to matter to Tiger quite a bit.

Perhaps it depends on what the definition of a physically limited Tiger actually entails. Is it a Tiger that cannot drive the ball farther than 275 yards (even if they are all striped down the middle) and a Tiger that can no longer hit a stinger 2-iron, or cannot hit a 2-iron farther than 225 yards – while playing next to Rory who is dancing the ball near the flagstick with his 5-iron from the same distance? If that is his reality, wouldn’t he consider retirement instead?

As one who can definitely sympathize with back issues, which, even after “successful” microdiscectomy surgery, my back is still not quite right four and a half years later (and the neurosurgeon cannot explain why, and nothing “wrong” can be seen on an MRI…) the big issue is not what the physical limitations of fusion might turn out to be. The big issue is the fear of swinging the club just so hard and just fast so as to injure/herniate one of the other disks (especially the ones just north and just south of the disc that is being permanently removed via the fusion surgery) and end up with a collapse of sensation in his lower back – i.e., numbing of the back muscles – resulting in not just muscle spasms, but a loss of functional strength in his back, hips, thighs, etc. and an inability to pick up his own tee from the ground, or pick up his golf ball out of the hole – and to have that occur during a competitive round.

The last thing Tiger needs is to be on live television again at Torrey Pines in cold damp weather explaining how he has to withdraw (again) because his “glutes won’t fire”, but hey, that has “nothing to do with” his fusion surgery.

I think it’s sad for the average golfer who suffers from back issues that the young hero of the game that ruled the world from 1997 to 2013 refuses to be transparent at all about his surgeries, past and present.

According to TigerWoods.com, the disc that is being fully removed is the one at the very bottom of the spine – the disc at L5/S1. Does anyone acutally know for certain that it’s the same disc (or one of multiple discs?) that was (were) partially removed in the first, second or third microdiscectomies? I’ve scoured every news report on Tiger’s back issues. He has never said the three past surgeries only involved one disc (or the same exact disc each surgery) and unless I missed it, he never specified which disc was the culprit for each of the original three surgeries. And almost every time information is made public, it lacks detail and it goes through the Mark Steinberg filter.

Because of that, he has missed a chance to connect with a large cohort of golf fans. The repetition of the current surgeon (Dr. Richard Guyer of the Texas Back Institute) of phrases like “completely healed” and “return to competitive golf” along with a rationalization/comparison to other human beings born with one less vertebrae, sound optimistic. But then again, the first surgeon, Dr. Charles Rich of Park City Utah, also sounded optimistic following the older microdiscectomies, using phrases like “full recovery,” and “complete success.” It is so much happy talk, and utterly unreliable.

I don’t wish back problems on anyone, not even Tiger. But the optimism being expressed for the fusion sugery success is pushing the envelope. I just don’t see how Tiger can switch to a swing that doesn’t involve the huge “separation’ of lower and upper body, but clearly that’s what he ought to do to avoid reinjury. If he stays with a huge amount of separation, I don’t see how he can avoid reinjury or avoid the fear of reinjury constantly haunting him.

Phil April 26, 2017

It can be fun to debate and speculate, but the bottom line is we simply do not know what will happen with Tiger. I for one certainly hope that this most recent surgery works for him, and that it sets him up for a Vijay-like run through the rest of his 40’s. Of course it’s also true that, during the time since Tiger descended from his peak, the competition caught up with him, so a “Vijay-like” run might simply mean some good golf with a couple of wins here and there. The one thing Wayne said that I’m not sure about is “but he certainly has the drive to continue to compete and win events”. Does he? Do we know that for sure? Maybe…maybe not…time will tell I guess. No matter what happens from here on do I hope that we do not take for granted what we witnessed during his prime.

Chuck April 26, 2017

I thought I wrote a comment on this but it got deleted?

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