There are a lot of reasons to believe that Tiger Woods is finished as a competitive golfer. The surgery he underwent (and surprised the public with) 10 days ago—medically termed an anterior lumbar interbody fusion—sounded like it has a better chance of being a career ender than a career saver. So did the description by Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, of his client taking a “clear and final path.” That Woods went through three microdiscectomies on the same area before succumbing to the fusion pretty much proves it was a last resort.
“But I don’t need another surgery, period,” Woods said in his Time Magazine interview from December 2015. “Let’s just not go down that road again. No more surgeries. Seven’s enough. That’s enough.”
Now, until further notice, eight will be enough.
The surgery is the culmination of a long series of trials that Woods has endured since he won the 2008 U.S. Open for his 14th major victory. The biggest domino was Thanksgiving night of 2009 and the destruction it wreaked on Woods’ private life and his public image. The ensuing decline in his play has seen him drop as low as 898th in the world as the effects of injury and more surgeries have caused long absences from competition and a string of withdrawals. Tiger-ologists parse his language, most recently noting in his statement announcing his surgery that he put “getting back to a normal life, playing with my kids” ahead of “competing in professional golf.”
The “he’s done” narrative usually includes the presumably advancing level of play on the PGA Tour that is passing Woods by, as well as his own presumably waning motivation or even eagerness for retirement. It’s also hastened by impatience. Much hope has been invested in Woods in the last few years, with very little return, creating an annoyance, and possibly worse—boredom—among the instant-gratification crowds. Meanwhile, some purists worry that Woods is damaging his legacy, endlessly analogizing Willie Mays falling down in center field.
Meanwhile, the counter argument, that Woods will be back, is growing weaker. The most repeated, once ironclad debate point—“Because he’s Tiger Woods”—can no longer be absolved from the circular logic it was built on.
However, there is still one very powerful point that has been largely overlooked and that grew in importance in the last week: the end of physical pain.
That’s right, it’s hard to remember the last time the presence of pain or its threat wasn’t top of mind when Woods was competing (his claims after a surgery, or before an imminent withdrawal, that he was pain-free not withstanding). The microdiscectomies never sounded like substantial enough procedures to resolve a serious back problem. As Steinberg told the Associated Press, “Everything he had done in the past was a temporary fix, so to speak.”
But the fusion of L-5 and S-1, performed by Dr. Richard Guyer at the Texas Back Institute Center for Disc Replacement near Dallas, and as described in unusual detail in Woods’ press release, clearly has a go-for-broke aura.
On the plus side, the fusion took place where the fifth spinal vertebrae meets the first vertebrae of the sacrum, an area where there is next-to-no rotation. In fact, some people have only four vertebrae and have normal function. Dr. Scott Blumenthal of the clinic said that it’s not unusual for people to have only four spinal vertebrae and have normal function. Moreover, Blumenthal said that athletes from all sports other than power lifting who have the same fusion as Woods are usually able to return to competition after surgery. The estimate for Woods is that he will be fully healed and be able to begin preparing for competition in about six months.
When the healing process goes well, the material that has been inserted in the enlarged space between the vertebrae adheres and hardens, precluding anymore disc fragments or fluid leakage wreaking havoc with nerves. No more spasms, no more shooting pains, with perhaps some occasional stiffness that can be managed with stretching and massage. The goal for Woods is to be freed to take an unimpeded, clear-minded, majestic, healthy cut once again.
On the negative side, the surgery has been rare among professional golfers. It appears that only Dudley Hart among PGA Tour players has had the fusion in the same location as Woods. Hart’s first surgery, in 2009, encountered complications that kept him in pain, while a second has produced better results.
Two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen had disc replacement in 2012 two vertebrae higher than where Woods did, in a place the spine undergoes more rotational stress during the golf swing. Nine months later, Goosen withdrew from the Players Championship with a stress fracture of the facet joint close to the location of the replacement. Since his disc replacement, Goosen, now 48, has managed seven top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour.
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As a rule, back surgery for pro golfers is high risk with a reward ranging from winning again to simply being able to continue playing. Two Hall of Famers—Lee Trevino and Lanny Wadkins—have both had a long history with back surgeries that, on balance, have produced positive returns, especially in their most recent surgeries, which have allowed them to continue to play the game they still love pain-free. Both believe that Woods can come back to a high level and win again.
Counter to some who think Woods has used his back problems as a convenient all-purpose cover for poor play and an excuse to withdraw, Trevino and Wadkins have no doubt that Woods’ pain is real. They each read Woods’ recounting in the Time interview of falling in his yard, and needing to ask his daughter to bring people to help him get up, with a nod of recognition.
“Until you’ve had severe low back pain, you have no idea,” says Wadkins, 67, the 1977 PGA champion and winner of 20 PGA Tour events who, in 2008, underwent double spinal fusion in different vertebrae than where Woods was operated on. “The nerve pain is 24-7, it doesn’t go away. At night you’re looking for relief where you can sleep, and you find yourself laying somewhere on the floor in your house. If you don’t deal with it, you will drink too much or pull a gun out or something.”
“He’s going to have change his workouts—not a lot of jogging, more walking. I used to skip a lot of rope, had to stop that. And the weights, forget it.”
Trevino, a man whose pain tolerance gained legend when he got all his teeth capped without the use of Novocain so that he could get it done in one nine-hour session, says nerve pain in his back was overwhelming. “I learned to play with pain, but there comes a time when it’s just too much, and you just can’t move,” he says. “If you’ve never had it, its very difficult to describe, but it makes golf pretty much impossible.”
The 77-year-old winner of six majors and 29 PGA Tour titles, along with 29 more on the then Senior Tour, has battle-tested knowledge. Trevino’s back went bad in 1975 after he was hit by lightning at the Western Open. He had a disc removed the next year, and with diminished swing speed but plenty of guile won the Vardon Trophy in 1980, and memorably, the 1984 PGA at age 44. He stayed mostly healthy for his prodigious senior run. But in 2003 his back flared up so severely that he thought he might never play even recreational golf again.
“I was dead on my back for three months,” Trevino said. Desperate, he traveled to Germany to have space-making steel rollers, called “X-Stops,” implanted in his spine.
“I came out of that surgery painless, which was an unbelievable feeling,” remembers Trevino. “We flew home, I did my rest and rehab, and pretty soon I felt so good I went absolutely crazy hitting balls and playing. I mean, I couldn’t swing hard enough at it. I was just so happy. I just wish that had happened when I was 44 instead of 64.”
Trevino believes that Woods will have a similar experience at 41. “My prediction, he’ll come back in a blaze of glory,” Trevino says. “He’s not too old, far from it. If he gets fixed, when he comes back to hitting and feels no pain, he’s going to be so happy, that he may be more dangerous than he was before.”
But Trevino warns that Woods has to be vigilant. “It will take him a year to really trust it and feel like himself and get confident,” Trevino said. “He’s going to have change his workouts—not a lot of jogging, more walking. I used to skip a lot of rope, had to stop that. And the weights, forget it.”
Trevino is not unaware that Woods’ fusion could prohibit him from returning to a high level of competition. “Hey, if they couldn’t fix him, then it is over,” he said. “You can only chase a rainbow so many times. But I’d say there is a good chance they fixed him. Then watch out. Anybody who says he isn’t still hungry is crazy. Listen, the few times that I’ve seen him, all he wants to do is bury people. He wants to bury the golfers. That doesn’t stop. He’s got more killer instinct than anybody I have ever seen.”
Wadkins, who says his back problems began after he went into the TV booth in 2001, also remembers coming out of his last surgery ecstatic. “It was immediate improvement,” he said. “Just a little soreness, and then making sure I did no twisting for three months. But because the pain had gone away, I couldn’t wait to do the rehab. I became the go-in-early-and-stay-late guy. Within five months, I was hitting drivers, which is the easiest club to hit post surgery. The short irons force you to bend over a little more and stay in your spine angle.
“I really lost very little if anything. Unfortunately, I did it at a time when my competitive career was basically over. Maybe a little rotation, but that goes as we get thicker anyway. Tiger is in so much better shape, he may rotate just as much.”
Like Trevino, Wadkins expects more good and possibly great golf from Woods. “I really feel that pain-free, Tiger has a good chance,” he said. “For all he’s been through, he’s still got a lot going in his favor. Frankly, it’s amazing to me how many people almost seem like they want him to be done. Why would you want him gone? All he does if he comes back and plays is make our game better. Can you imagine if Tiger could come back and play at a really high level? Where he can win tournaments competing with these kids today? It would be some of the most exciting stuff we’ve ever seen.”
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Hart’s story is more of a cautionary tale. After winning twice in the 1990s, Hart played in near constant pain after hurting his back at the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews. When he learned his disc between L-5 and S-1 was almost completely worn away, he opted for fusion in 2009, but emerged from surgery in even worse pain. He was ready to leave the game when he learned that a redo with a different doctor could repair much of the damage from the first one, and give him a chance to play again. Since having the procedure in 2012, Hart has been able to compete sparingly, this year focusing on a few Web.com Tour events while preparing to join the PGA Tour Champions when he turns 50 in August 2018.
“I have good days and bad days,” Hart says. “I’ve found that I have to be super, super aware of how my body is feeling. You have to get to the point where you recognize you don’t feel great, and maybe you don’t practice that day. Or maybe alter your work out. You have to pay attention to what you are doing day in and day out.
“To me, the only question for Tiger is how much he’s willing to put up with the downside. He’s got an uphill battle, no doubt. I think privately he would maybe admit that. But I would never bet against the guy. He’s the strongest golfer mentally that I’ve ever known personally. I just don’t know if he’s at a place in his life where he’s going to want to deal with some struggles before he can get back to playing to the level that he wants to. Can he accept mediocrity or worse for a while? I think if he knows it’s temporary, yes.”
Dan Pohl, a former long-hitting star from the 1980s who lost a playoff in the 1981 Masters and won four other times, had the first of several back surgeries in 1989 and has a unique perspective on the sharp decline in Woods’ putting and especially short game in the last few years.
“What I found is that when you have structural instabilities in your back and muscle tightness, under the pressure of competition the tightness increases and the nerve roots fire unpredictably,” Pohl said. “It affects distance control on the shorter clubs and it can really mess up your chipping. In putting, you’re trying to stand motionless, but with lower-back issues, when everything starts getting tight under pressure, stillness is the hardest thing.
“I really think that what Tiger went through was not mental but physically related to his back problems. If he comes out of this pain-free, I hope he can back to that softness that the great chippers and putters have.”
It’s apparent that for the increasing numbers of Woods’ doubters, players who have been there both at the highest level competitively and through the throes of back surgery are revealingly optimistic about Woods’ playing future.
Nothing definitive about Woods’ progress will be known for months. With a Dec. 30 birthday, he will most likely be 42 the next time he swings a club in competition, or even publicly.
Will what’s seen then change the collective mind about Woods being finished as quickly as emerging pain-free from back surgery can change a golfer’s vision of his own prospects? It could lead to the most amazing chapter of all in the story of Tiger Woods.