Just about everyone who is interested in golf wants to know if Tiger can come back. I happen to think he can, and I have a unique perspective as to what he is going through.

I had my first back surgery (a single-disc laminectomy, much like Tiger’s first three back surgeries) in 1983 while I was playing the mini tours in Florida. I had been a First-Team All-American at LSU in 1979 (good team that year: Corey Pavin, Fred Couples, Bob Tway, John Cook, Bobby Clampett, Gary Hallberg, Scott Watkins and myself. Mark O’Meara, Payne Stewart, Joey Sindelar and Mark Wiebe were on the 2nd team), and I had turned professional a year later. I made it to the Q-School finals in 1985, but the amount of practice it took to get there blew up my back again and I had to have a two-level fusion at S1-L5 and L4-L5. I gave up trying to make the Tour and got a job teaching, and it took me a year before I could play 18 holes.

Unfortunately for me, my trials were not yet over. The fusion bone grew in too well, so I had to have another surgery in 1988 to make more room around the nerve roots that the fusion had stabilized. I took a couple of years off away from the game, but I got back into teaching in 1991. I got to be a busy teacher, but I was determined to continue to play competitively at the club pro level. I made a pretty good career out of it, earning player of the year honors in my section four times, qualifying for five PGA Championships (by finishing in the top-20 at the National) and winning the National Club Pro in 2001 at age 43. I had to be constantly mindful of how much I practiced, and there were many occasions when I had to withdraw from events. Over the years, I tried to make adjustments to my swing that would allow me to play and get the most out of my body I could.

As a young player, my swing resembled the greats of the 70s (Nicklaus, Watson, Miller, Weiskopf) with an exaggerated “reverse-C” finish. I discarded this type of action for a more Hogan-esque rotational swing that was less stressful on my lower spine. This held up nicely for the most part until about 2009, after which the stiffness that had built up and over time made it difficult to strike the ball well enough to compete at my accustomed level. In December of 2014, I went in for my fourth and last surgery. My surgeon opened space around the nerves exiting from the sides of the two discs above the fusion, L3-L4 and L2-L3. The main problem with a fusion is that it eliminates all rotation in that area of the spine, and biomechanically the areas above and to the sides of the fusion are stressed in an abnormal way. It took me eight months to get back to tournament golf after that, and I am now able to practice more than I have in many years.

As you know, Tiger Woods just underwent his fourth back surgery in the past two years (he has now caught up to me in the race no one wants to win), and 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. As I mentioned, 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. If the basic movements required to make a good swing cause pain, however, 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. 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. The first orthopedic I ever saw for my back told me I would need a fusion. I thought he was crazy and found another doctor. Tiger probably felt like he could beat the problem with smaller measures, but after his 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 golf, 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 in 1949. Then 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 as a result he 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, six years after the accident), and he never played in more than six events in a single year after 1949. But due to his determination and technical knowledge of the golf swing, he could play through whatever pain he felt and was able to modify his swing. He was not as powerful, but he was perhaps even more precise.

Hogan won six majors between 1950 and 1953, and he 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. I believe he needs to discard the notion of “explosiveness.” I am not talking about swinging easy, rather, I would like to see him compress less into the ground in the backswing and bring his hand path out toward the ball more in transition to give himself more space for his arms and hands and to encourage rotation in his lower body. He doesn’t have to hit it as far as Dustin Johnson to win majors; he can hit it as far as Zach Johnson and win.

Tiger may not need the money, but I certainly think he still has the drive to continue to compete and win PGA Tour events. I don’t believe he will give up, and this next attempt to make a comeback will again be something to watch.

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Wayne has been playing tournament golf for more than 40 years and teaching golf for over 27 years. He is the Director of Instruction at Lakewood CC in Rockville, Maryland and is founder of the Wayne Defrancesco Golf Learning Center (WDGLC).

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40 COMMENTS

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  1. I haven’t been a Tiger fan ever since the infamous “loose impediment” incident in 1999 (not in the spirit of golf IMHO). That said, I do hope he can comeback and compete at the highest level again because it will be great for the sport I love.

  2. He is done unless he finds a coach that knows what he is talking about. Foley and Como are twins they teach the same garbage……duh…..let’s swing left, even though the target is not over there and it will destroy my back….yep let’s just swing left baby!!!!!! Time for a course on simple physics….

    Steve Wozeniak PGA

  3. WayneD played at a high level-for a club pro. Not close to tour level. Tiger is 41, by WD’s words, it’s going to be 8 months before he can start to work again, so, 42. He’s going to have to learn a new swing, which is going to take a year to get grooved, so he’s now around 43, he’s forced to play a very limited schedule, limited range time … there’s just too many things. Even without the injuries, Tiger last won a major in 2008, and he is at the age where golf careers begin to tail off. I would like Tiger to be pain free, play an occasional tournament with no great expectations and be able to live a normal life, whatever passes as normal for a rich celebrity. As a force on tour, nope, never going to happen.

  4. 3 years ago tiger woods was still the best iron player in the world when he hit the fw, even though he had the worst year of his career. just put that into perspective, his absolute worse and put an iron in his hands and he beats the best of the best. tiger is a very special talent, one we will never ever see again, all the things that we think that are extraordinary is simply trivial to him. when you are so ahead of the curve, you will always have a boxer’s chance at winning in golf or better yet a major championship. the masters is a crap shoot with a limited field every year. the british open is weather the most weather dependant major. i doubt tiger would ever win a US open, he just doesn’t drive the ball well enough to be a front runner. the pga i say he will have a harder time winning. so for a 42 year old with multiple back surgeries, he still has a 2.5/4 of winning a major.

  5. My “good back” friends just don’t know what it’s like… When you are in an icy parking lot and consider getting down and rolling/crawling to get where you need to go just to prevent slipping and throwing your back out– then we can talk.

  6. Everyone overlooks the amount of practice (daily) he would need to get back into tournament shape. That’s not gonna happen, he can’t continuously practice the amount needed to perform on the highest level due to these injuries.

  7. No back surgeries and I still play to a 3 at 55 years old. How? I love my wife, accept my age, stay mentally sharp, and know my physical limitations. And I’ll take all your money from 80 yards in 6 days a week. Tiger needs to hang up his pen*s for a few years and go talk to Jay Haas. If he can’t do the former, go talk to Fred Couples.

  8. You forget that the women get in the way. How he destroyed so many of them. Edlrick’s ego too. And the kind of money we’re talking about that Eldrick has, compared to what Hogan was making, is astronomical and can’t even be compared, the money is a massive factor that will take away the hunger to go after it. Plus it’s mostly the public and media scrutiny he faces every time he steps out to the course that he can’t handle. He never has been smart at making speeches nor speaking in public. His management team and agents surround him in a cocoon now so he doesn’t put his foot in the wrong thing, you can see he’d rather just be at home with the kids and be left alone. His agents and publicists are geniuses at keeping Eldrick’s noise in the media, keeping the world up to date, even trying to upend other people’s successes by publishing updates at inappropriate times. That’s the world he lives in. If it was pure golf for winning tournaments only and going for records, I’m sure he’d be out there gunning for it, but all this other stuff have stopped him. Has anybody asked how often he speaks to Elin or allow her to see each other’s kids or themselves, for that matter?

  9. Three spine surgeries here. I’ve had to learn to accept my limitations. I’m not sure Tiger’s out-sized ego can accept his. But, then, is he willing to go through missed cuts and mediocre finishes in his attempt to come back? Be just another Tour pro on his way to…what? That, not his back, will be the sticking point.

  10. So here is a guy that has played golf at the top 0.01% level and has happened to have very similar injuries and surgeries and all you 15 handicappers immediately dismiss his opinions because they do not line up with your predetermined outlook on Tiger. Interesting.

  11. Very well written article. You obviously know more than most about back pain and the golf swing. Like you said, with this major fix Tiger will have a chance to play pain free again. But still remains to be seen. Even if the physical part works out, he will have to muster the mental strength to come back and win again.

    Definitely don’t question his mental strength when Earl was around – it was unparalleled. But since 2006, I do question it. I’m not sure he has it in him to humble himself and make swing changes to accommodate his physical limitations. Don’t think it’s in his DNA. I think he gets frustrated and just tries to power through.

    I don’t question that he wants to come back and win. But I don’t think he knows how to struggle through tough times. His whole life he has always been the best. Not saying he didn’t work hard, but I think everything came pretty easily to him. He’s not used to seeing other guys blast it past him. He’s not used to having the chipping yips. That sort of thing never used to happen to him. I think it’s taken him down a few pegs, in our minds and in his own. That is what I think he won’t be able to overcome.

    We’ll see. I actually hope you’re right and I’m wrong.

    • I think you’re spot on with the statement of it not being in Tiger’s DNA to change the way he plays.. not enough to follow through with it anyways. He has started to change some aspects, but I just don’t see him slowing things down enough to make the necessary changes. This also begs the question: Without Tiger’s swing, the one that won countless tournaments (80-ish?) and 14 majors; is it still Tiger, and will he be good enough to compete as he once did with a different swing and approach to the game? He’s obviously going to be able to hold on to many, many very strong aspects of his game, but can he re-vamp other parts of his game well enough to compete with some of the things he will have to give up? Like you, I hope I, and you, are wrong. It’d be great to see him come back and win. Even just win a regular tournament. 2013 was really exciting to see the big cat come back and win again, even if it didn’t include any majors.

      With what he has shown so far though, he’s going to have to re work his swing, his approach to the game, and his mental game as well, and that’s the part I think will hold him back. He’s a golf nut and couldn’t stay away entirely the last couple years, and couldn’t make the changes needed to stay healthy, and I’ll be surprised if he can do it again. Not to mention, after hitting what I must assume is a million golf balls with the same swing over many years, and now having that swing be limited, the road to recovery will include more than feeling good again, and will entail re-learning everything. I’m sure he can learn faster than anyone, but his muscle memory won’t do him any good because he’s going to have to change so much. His mental and muscle memory might even hurt him because those are the things that can’t be erased and much of it won’t fit into what he’s going to presumably attempt to do now. .

  12. TW couldn’t even make it back as a caddie? I love the reasoning in these articles…ooh “let em get the reader’s attention” with some specious reasoning. Take off the rose-colored glasses,,,you’ve seen the last of TW; and that includes the Senior Tour. #MoveOn

  13. Hogan had only won 3 majors before his accident (4 if you count the Hale America Open during WWII). As well, he started his equipment company in 1953, so he had plenty of reasons work his tail off to win majors.

    Tiger has already won 14 majors. Where’s the incentive?

  14. I have similar injuries to the writer, and to Tiger. It’s awful, nasty, and no fun at all. I have yet to undergo surgery as I’ve already had eight or nine operations in my shorter life span, and am not interested in going in for another. That being said, some days it seems like it’d be worth it.

    Now, if the back is anything like other injuries after an operation, then the writer nailed it on the head in saying that Tiger will need to change some things about his swing and the way he plays. It’s possible to get your body to perform well enough to achieve the same end results as before, but you can’t do it in the ways in which you became injured in the first place, and Tiger doesn’t seem to want to change that so much. I also believe that with the right changes, he could come back in much better form than he has. The only question I really have, is without that explosive swing and style of play, will it really be Tiger, and will he be good enough to beat those that might not be as good as Tiger once was, but are better than Tiger on his bad, mediocre, and decent days. I don’t think he’d win tournaments by 10 strokes anymore, healthy or not, so he will have to excel in other facets of the game in which he can get a leg up over the field again, while giving up the advantages he used to have.

  15. I agree that Tiger COULD play and be good again, but I don’t thing his ego will allow him to revert to a finesse game from his power game….and he’ll have to become a much better putter.

  16. Tiger is the needle so you are probably going to get a lot of opinions here, but I just wanted to say thanks for the insight. Coming from someone who also had a fusion and played played golf at a very high level, it’s interesting what you say about a player being to play with limitations (but not pain). It would seem that being able to practice less is a big limitation (esp for Tiger since he likes to make swing changes) which might be the biggest roadblock, that and his age (he doesnt have a ton of time to learn to adapt). Insightful to hear how you were able to adapt and produce great golf again in a similar situation.

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