Linebacker Jack Youngblood played in a 1977 NFL playoff game with a broken left leg. Gymnast Kerri Strug tore ligaments in her left ankle but still nailed a vault to give the United States team a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics. And who can forget the bloody sock of Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling in the 2004 baseball playoffs—evidence of a serious ankle injury that, amazingly, didn’t keep him from throwing seven innings and leading his team to victory.
These are all examples of world-class athletes performing extraordinarily despite severe pain and injury. That should give Tiger Woods and his fans encouragement that his latest comeback, after spinal-fusion surgery in April, will be a success. Keep in mind Tiger won the 2008 U.S. Open despite playing with a torn ligament in his left knee. He knows how to get the most out of an impaired body.
Yet, as he prepares to play in the Hero World Challenge, his first tournament in roughly nine months, experts in the fields of sports medicine, exercise physiology and physical therapy wonder if his return to professional golf will be short lived.
“Do people think he can just jump back in and play great? They probably do,” says Golf Digest fitness advisor Ben Shear, who works with several players on the PGA Tour. “But to me, you have to forget about what place he comes in. If he can just get through four rounds of golf healthy, not withdrawing again, that’s a success.”
And even if that is the outcome, which experts Golf Digest spoke all agree is likely, the real concern is how well will his body hold up going forward. A study of the long-term effects of segmental lumbar spinal fusion, published in the Asian Spine Journal in 2016, indicates that he’s setting himself up for further damage if he continues to compete.
The problem won’t be with the discs that were fused together, rather the discs near them. Stress on the adjacent segments of the spine was 7.6 percent higher after the surgery, the study concluded. This is bad because the discs of the lumbar spine—located at the bottom third of the column—aren’t meant to rotate more than 5 to 10 degrees, says Golf Digest fitness advisor Ralph Simpson, a board certified specialist in orthopaedics and a medical advisor to the Titleist Performance Institute. That extra stress could push them past their rotational limits.
“Stress like that, caused by the way most people make a golf swing, breaks down the discs,” Simpson says. “The segment that was fused obviously can’t rotate much at all, so the ones next to it will have to pick up the slack. And keep in mind these discs are likely to already have degenerative changes from a lifetime of golf.”
Adds Shear: “You can’t swing a golf club at a tour level without rotating your back. So he’s gotta get that movement from somewhere.”
The good news for Tiger is he is hypermobile, especially for a man who will turn 42 in December, the experts agree. Ara Suppiah, team doctor for the U.S. Ryder and Presidents Cup teams, says he spoke with Tiger in September and was impressed with just how strong and fit he looked.
“He’s been doing a lot of cardio and strength training,” Suppiah says. “I know he walks for miles on the beach at his home. The funny thing is he said his feet were killing him at the Presidents Cup, because he hadn’t worn golf shoes in a while. But seriously, I believe his body can absorb the stresses.
“The thing to keep in mind is how much of a competitor Tiger is. When he gets out there, and the younger guys are swinging hard, is that going to want to make him push his body past its limits? Only time will tell.”
Another thing to consider is how multiple back injuries and surgeries, and the long-term arthritic effect on his left knee after the 2008 surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament, might impact the way he swings the club.
While Tiger is historically tight-lipped about what he’s working on with his golf swing—and you won’t get much out of his coach, Chris Como, either—it’s likely that he’ll have to make compensations to squelch pain and reduce the odds of further injury.
“Any time you alter where an athlete is able to create motion, it changes the geometry that the athlete is able to use. In golf, this can result in the rotary component of the golf swing being significantly affected,” says Craig Davies, a manual therapist and longtime trainer on the PGA Tour. “You’ll often see more lifting of the arms as they separate from the torso and a steeper attack angle—or greater lateral movement—as compensations.”
Shear, who has developed a program to steer golfers toward a specific swing style based on physical capabilities, says Woods will likely have to generate more clubhead speed with his arms. If he tries to create the type of power needed at the PGA Tour level from body rotation, his comeback might be over pretty fast, Shear says.
“He can try and swing like he used to in the short term,” Shear says. “But long term, that’s going to put his back under so much stress.”
Another thing to consider is how much force he can apply to his left knee, Simpson says.
“Considering the lead knee has as much torsion and load in a golf swing as it does in a running stride, the picture for Tiger being pain free dims,” he says. “It’s going to be difficult for him to finish on a fully loaded lead leg. And if a golfer can’t do that, the usual compensations made in the swing place more burden on the lumbar spine.”
Can Tiger swing hard and not hurt himself again? Can he walk four rounds of golf, in pain or not, and compete with players half his age? Can he do this repeatedly, at least being healthy enough to play in golf’s biggest tournaments? The experts say they’re rooting for him, but it’s hard to ignore what the percentages indicate.