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.