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.
Fantasy Preview: 2018 Fort Worth Invitational
Under a new name, but a very familiar setting, the Fort Worth Championship gets underway this week. Colonial Country Club will host, and it’s an event that has attracted some big names to compete in the final stop of the Texas swing. The top two ranked Europeans, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose are in the field, as are Americans Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
Colonial is a tricky course with narrow tree-lined fairways that are imperative to hit. Distance off the tee holds no real advantage this week with approach play being pivotal. Approach shots will be made more difficult this week than usual by the greens at Colonial, which are some of the smallest on the PGA Tour. Last year, Kevin Kisner held off Spieth, Rahm, and O’Hair to post 10-under par and take the title by a one-stroke margin.
Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)
- Jordan Spieth 9/1
- Jon Rahm 14/1
- Justin Rose 18/1
- Webb Simpson 18/1
- Rickie Fowler 20/1
- Jimmy Walker 28/1
- Adam Scott 28/1
Last week, Jordan Spieth (9/1, DK Price $11,700) went off at the Byron Nelson as the prohibitive 5/1 favorite. Every man and his dog seemed to be on him, and after Spieth spoke to the media about how he felt he had a distinct advantage at a course where he is a member, it was really no surprise. Comments like this from Spieth at the Byron Nelson are not new. When the event was held at TPC Four Seasons, Spieth often made similar comments. The result? He flopped, just as he did last week at Trinity Forest. Spieth’s best finish at the Byron Nelson in his career is T-16. The reason for this, I believe, is the expectations he has put on himself at this event for years.
Switch to Colonial, and the difference is considerable. Spieth’s worst finish here is T-14. In his last three visits, he has finished second, first and second. While Spieth may believe that he should win the Byron Nelson whenever he tees it up there, the evidence suggests that his love affair is with Colonial. The statistic that truly emphasizes his prowess at Colonial, though, is his Strokes Gained-Total at the course. Since 2013, Spieth has a ridiculous Strokes Gained-Total of more than +55 on the course, almost double that of Kisner in second place.
Spieth’s long game all year has been consistently good. Over his previous 24 rounds, he ranks first in this field for Strokes Gained-Tee to Green, second for Ball Striking, and first for Strokes Gained-Total. On the other hand, his putting is awful at the moment. He had yet another dreadful performance on the greens at Trinity Forest, but he was also putting nowhere near his best coming into Colonial last year. In 2017, he had dropped strokes on the greens in his previous two events, missing the cut on both occasions, yet he finished seventh in Strokes Gained-Putting at Colonial on his way to a runner-up finish. His record is too good at this course for Spieth to be 9/1, and he can ignite his 2018 season in his home state this week.
Emiliano Grillo’s (50/1, DK Price $8,600) only missed cut in 2018 came at the team event in New Orleans, and he arrives this week at a course ideally suited to the Argentine’s game. Grillo performed well here in 2017, recording a top-25 finish. His form in 2018 leads me to believe he can improve on that this year.
As a second-shot golf course, Colonial sets up beautifully for the strengths of Grillo’s game. Over his previous 12 rounds, Grillo ranks first in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, second in Ball Striking, third in Strokes Gained-Tee to Green and eighth in Strokes Gained-Total. The Argentine also plays short golf courses excellently. Over his last 50 rounds, Grillo is ranked ninth for Strokes Gained-Total on courses measuring 7,200 yards or less. Colonial is right on that number, and Grillo looks undervalued to continue his consistent season on a course that suits him very well.
Another man enjoying a consistent 2018 is Adam Hadwin (66/1, DK Price $7,600), who has yet to miss a cut this season. The Canadian is enjoying an excellent run of form with five top-25 finishes from his last six stroke-play events. Hadwin is another man whose game is tailor made for Colonial. His accurate iron play and solid putting is a recipe for success here, and he has proven that by making the cut in all three of his starts at Colonial, finishing in the top-25 twice.
Hadwin is coming off his worst performance of 2018 at The Players Championship, but it was an anomaly you can chalk up to a rare poor week around the greens (he was seventh-to-last in Strokes Gained-Around the Green for the week). In his previous seven starts, Hadwin had a positive strokes gained total in this category each time. Over his last 24 rounds, Hadwin ranks seventh in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, 15th in Ball Striking, and ninth in Strokes Gained-Putting. He looks to have an excellent opportunity to improve on his solid record at Colonial this week.
Finally, as far as outsiders go, I like the look of Sean O’Hair (175/1, DK Price $7,100) at what is a juicy price. One of last year’s runners-up, his number is far too big this week. He has had some excellent performances so far in 2018. In fact, in his previous six starts, O’Hair has made five cuts and has notched three top-15 finishes, including his runner-up finish at the Valero Texas Open. The Texan has made three of his last four cuts at Colonial, and he looks to be an excellent pick on DraftKings at a low price.
- Jordan Spieth 9/1, DK Price $11,700
- Emiliano Grillo 50/1, DK Price $8.600
- Adam Hadwin 66/1, DK Price $7,600
- Sean O’Hair 175/1, DK Price $7,100
Pick three golfers to build the ultimate scramble team. Who you got?
It’s officially scramble season. Whether it’s a corporate outing or charity event, surely you’ve either been invited to play in or have already played in a scramble this year.
If you don’t know the rules of the scramble format, here’s how it works: All four golfers hit their drives, then the group elects the best shot. From there, all four golfers hit the shot, and the best of the bunch is chosen once again. The hole continues in this fashion until the golf ball is holed.
The best scramble players are those who hit the ball really far and/or stick it close with the irons and/or hole a lot of putts. The point is to make as many birdies and eagles as possible.
With this in mind, inside GolfWRX Headquarters, we got to discussing who would be on the ultimate scramble team. Obviously, Tiger-Jack-Daly was brought up immediately, so there needed to be a caveat to make it more challenging.
Thus, the following hypothetical was born. We assigned each golfer below a dollar value, and said that we had to build a three player scramble team (plus yourself) for $8 or less.
Here are the answers from the content team here at GolfWRX:
Tiger Woods ($5): This is obvious. From a scramble standpoint, Tiger gives you everything you want: Long, accurate, and strategic off the tee (in his prime). Woods, sets the team up for optimal approach shots (he was pretty good at those too)…and of course, arguably the greatest pressure putter of all time.
David Duval ($2): I’m thinking of Double D’s machine-like approach play in his prime. Tour-leader in GIR in 1999, and 26th in driving accuracy that year, Duval ought to stick second shots when TW doesn’t and is an asset off the tee.
Corey Pavin ($1): A superb putter and dogged competitor, Pavin’s a great value at $1. Ryder Cup moxy. Plus, he’ll always give you a ball in the fairway off the tee (albeit a short one), much needed in scramble play.
Rory McIlroy ($4): I am willing to bet their are only a handful of par 5’s in the world that he can’t hit in in two shots. You need a guy who can flat out overpower a course and put you in short iron situations on every hole. His iron play is a thing of beauty, with a high trajectory that makes going after any sucker pin a possibility.
Jordan Spieth ($3): Was there a guy who putted from mid-range better than him just a couple years ago? If there was, he isn’t on this list. Scrambles need a guy who can drain everything on the green and after watching 3 putts to get the read, he won’t miss. His solid wedge game will also help us get up and down from those short yardages on the Par 4’s.
Corey Pavin ($1): Fear the STACHE!! The former Ryder Cup captain will keep the whole team playing their best and motivated to make birdies and eagles. If we have 228 yards to the flag we know he is pulling that 4 wood out and giving us a short putt for birdie. He will of course be our safety net, hitting the “safe shot,” allowing the rest of us to get aggressive!
Dustin Johnson ($4) – Bombmeister!!!
Lee Trevino ($2) — Funny as hell (and I speak Mexican).
Sergio Garcia ($1) – The greatest iron player (I speak Spanish, too).
Dustin Johnson ($4)
Seve Ballesteros ($2)
Lee Trevino ($2)
DJ is longer than I-10, Seve can dig it out of the woods, and Trevino can shape it into any pin.
Dustin Johnson ($4)
Jordan Spieth ($2)
Anthony Kim ($1)
Are all the old timers gonna be mad at me for taking young guys? Doesn’t matter. DJ has to be the best driver ever, as long as he’s hitting that butter cut. With Jordan, it’s hard to tell whether he’s better with his irons or with his putter — remember, we’re talking Jordan in his prime, not the guy who misses putts from 8 inches. Then, Anthony Kim has to be on the team in case the alcohol gets going since, you know, it’s a scramble; remember when he was out all night (allegedly) before the Presidents Cup and still won his match? I need that kind of ability on my squad. Plus AK will get us in the fairway when me, DJ and Spieth each inevitably hit it sideways.
Tiger Woods ($5)
Seve Ballesteros ($2)
Corey Pavin ($1)
Tiger is a no-brainer. Seve is maybe the most creative player ever and would enjoy playing HORSE with Tiger. Pavin is the only $1 player who wouldn’t be scared stiff to be paired with the first two.
Tiger Woods ($5): His Mind/Overall Game
Seve Ballesteros ($2): His creativity/fire in a team format/inside 100
Anthony Kim ($1): Team swagger/he’s streaky/will hit fairways under the gun.
A scramble requires 3 things: Power, Putting and Momentum. These 3 guys as a team complete the whole package. Tiger is a one man scramble team but will get himself in trouble, which is where Seve comes in. In the case where the momentum is going forward like a freight train, nobody rattles a cage into the zone better than AK. It’s the perfect team and the team I’d want out there if my life was on the line. I’d trust my kids with this team.
Who would you pick on your team, and why? See what GolfWRX Members are saying in the forums.
Is equipment really to blame for the distance problem in golf?
It’s 2018, we’re more than a quarter of the way through Major Season, and there are 58 players on the PGA Tour averaging over 300 yards off the tee. Trey Mullinax is leading the PGA Tour through the Wells Fargo Championship with an average driving distance of 320 yards. Much discussion has been had about the difficulty such averages are placing on the golf courses across the country. Sewn into the fabric of the distance discussion are suggestions by current and past giants of the game to roll back the golf ball.
In a single segment on an episode of Live From The Masters, Brandel Chamblee said, “There’s a correlation from when the ProV1 was introduced and driving distance spiked,” followed a few minutes later by this: “The equipment isn’t the source of the distance, it’s the athletes.”
So which is it? Does it have to be one or the other? Is there a problem at all?
Several things of interest happened on the PGA Tour in the early 2000s, most of which were entirely driven by the single most dominant athlete of the last 30. First, we saw Tiger Woods win four consecutive majors, the first and only person to do that in the modern era of what are now considered the majors. Second, that same athlete drew enough eyeballs so that Tim Finchem could exponentially increase the prize money golfers were playing for each week. Third, but often the most overlooked, Tiger Woods ushered in fitness to the mainstream of golf. Tiger took what Gary Player and Greg Norman had preached their whole careers and amped it up like he did everything else.
In 1980, Dan Pohl was the longest player on the PGA Tour. He averaged 274 yards off the tee with a 5-foot, 11-inch and 175-pound frame. By 2000, the average distance for all players on the PGA Tour was 274 yards. The leader of the pack that year was John Daly, who was the only man to average over 300 yards. Tiger Woods came in right behind him at 298 yards.
Analysis of the driving distance stats on the PGA Tour since 1980 show a few important statistics: Over the last 38 seasons, the average driving distance for all players on the PGA Tour has increased an average of 1.1 yards per year. When depicted on a graph, it looks like this:
The disparity between the shortest and the longest hitter on the PGA Tour has increased 0.53 yards per year, which means the longest hitters are increasing the gap between themselves and the shortest hitters. The disparity chart fluctuates considerably more than the average distance chart, but the increase from 1980 to 2018 is staggering.
In 1980, there was 35.6 yards between Dan Pohl (longest) and Michael Brannan (shortest – driving distance 238.7 yards). In 2018, the difference between Trey Mullinax and Ken Duke is 55.9 yards. Another point to consider is that in 1980, Michael Brannan was 25. Ken Duke is currently 49 years of age.
The question has not been, “Is there a distance problem?” It’s been, “How do we solve the distance problem?” The data is clear that distance has increased — not so much at an exponential rate, but at a consistent clip over the last four decades — and also that equipment is only a fraction of the equation.
Jack Nicklaus was over-the-hill in 1986 when he won the Masters. It came completely out of nowhere. Players in past decades didn’t hit their prime until they were in their early thirties, and then it was gone by their early forties. Today, it’s routine for players to continue playing until they are over 50 on the PGA Tour. In 2017, Steve Stricker joined the PGA Tour Champions. In 2016, he averaged 278 yards off the tee on the PGA Tour. With that number, he’d have topped the charts in 1980 by nearly four yards.
If equipment was the only reason distance had increased, then the disparity between the longest and shortest hitters would have decreased. If it was all equipment, then Ken Duke should be averaging something more like 280 yards instead of 266.
There are several things at play. First and foremost, golfers are simply better athletes these days. That’s not to say that the players of yesteryear weren’t good athletes, but the best athletes on the planet forty years ago didn’t play golf; they played football and basketball and baseball. Equipment definitely helped those super athletes hit the ball straighter, but the power is organic.
The other thing to consider is that the total tournament purse for the 1980 Tour Championship was $440,000 ($1,370,833 in today’s dollars). The winner’s share for an opposite-field event, such as the one played in Puerto Rico this year, is over $1 million. Along with the fitness era, Tiger Woods ushered in the era of huge paydays for golfers. This year, the U.S. Open prize purse will be $12 milion with $2.1 million of that going to the winner. If you’re a super athlete with the skills to be a golfer, it makes good business sense to go into golf these days. That wasn’t the case four decades ago.
Sure, equipment has something to do with the distance boom, but the core of the increase is about the athletes themselves. Let’s start giving credit where credit is due.
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