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.