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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tiger Makes the Right Choice

The news hit the media like an earthquake: Tiger Woods had back surgery Monday afternoon and will not play in the Masters next week. ESPN broke the news -- GC was just moments behind -- and the speculation began about what this means for Tiger's pursuit of 19 majors.


When I heard the news, my reaction was simply... Finally. I think this is good news and, while I may be in the minority, I think this actually improves Tiger's chances of reaching his goal.

Let me summarize what we know; I'm going mainly from what I heard on the ESPN and GC TV coverage. You can get more info from these posts at ESPN, CBSsports (where the photo came from), USAToday, and GC.

Although most of the coverage has focused on Tiger's back pain since the 2013 PGA Championship and the FedExCup Playoffs, some reports say Tiger's problems began at Jack's Place last year. It just didn't become publicly noticeable until the Deutsche Bank tournament.

Tiger's surgery is called a microdiscectomy -- micro- because it's minimally invasive, -discectomy because they remove part of a disc. Dr. Ara Suppiah at GC likened it to a squashed jelly donut, where some jelly (part of the disc) got squeezed out. The "squeezed-out jelly" was pinching a nerve, and that caused the pain. In this surgery -- which can take as little as 15 minutes and in some cases is performed with a laser -- the "extra jelly" is snipped off and the "donut" stitched shut so no more comes out. Relief from the pain typically ranges from almost immediate to less than 24 hours.

According to ESPN's injury analyst Stephania Bell, a study was done on 80 athletes from various sports who had this surgery. Around 90% of them returned to their pre-injury level of performance. (Want some names? Try New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski and Houston Rocket's center Dwight Howard.) So Tiger has a very reasonable chance of regaining his previous form once he heals.

Tiger has said he hopes to be working on his short game in 3 weeks and to be back playing sometime this summer. Here's the general framework of recovery, based on material from both GC and ESPN:
  • As I said before, the pain relief is almost immediate.
  • Patients typically return to normal function in daily activities -- walking, driving, doing normal chores, etc. -- in roughly 8 weeks.
  • "Full recovery" -- and by that I mean the player has healed enough to start working at his or her sport -- averages 4.5 months, with the typical range being 3 to 6 months. Suppiah said the exact time depends somewhat on the determination of the athlete, and this is Tiger we're talking about, so... it's probably gonna be on the shorter side of this time scale. ;-)
  • And as I also said, studies show that around 90% of those players eventually return to their original pre-back problem levels of function. So, barring any unforeseen problems, he should be able to perform just as well going forward as he has in the past.
  • Finally, there are no indications that this surgery has any sort of adverse affect on a player's career. In other words, Tiger's career will likely be as long as he wants.
I think this means that if Tiger plays a major this year, it'll most likely be the PGA Championship.

As to the cause of the problem, a number of doctors said that it may have been caused more by Tiger's workout regimen than by his swing -- although he'll almost certainly have to make some adjustments to his swing because, to use their words, it's a bit "violent." Tiger will definitely have to reduce the intensity and perhaps the frequency of his workout schedule, but that's probably not a bad thing. I can tell you this from experience -- while an older body can still make the same kind of muscular improvements as a younger body, it needs longer rest periods between workouts because the older body rebuilds a little more slowly than the younger body.

With only one or two exceptions, most of the people I heard comment about "the goal" felt that the odds were now against Tiger. But Dottie Pepper brought up an tantalizing idea: With all the other problems Tiger has had -- elbow, Achilles tendon, knee -- this layoff may give all these ailments some time to finally heal.

Unfortunately, over-training is as much a part of the Tiger legacy as the "golfers are athletes" mindset. Suzann Pettersen had to withdraw from the KNC this week, also because of a bulging disc... and apparently also as a result of too much time in the gym. Will she need back surgery? Nobody knows yet, but this should be a cautionary tale to the rest of us.

As the day went on, I heard more and more people say it was a good idea to get this done NOW instead of waiting. I had already decided it was a good choice simply because of Retief Goosen. Goosen's back problems have dragged on for two years. Back at the Honda -- when asked about the good round he had just shot -- he noted that he had been pain-free for nearly 6 months and that his game was coming back into shape. He said he waited too long, unwilling to undergo surgery. His game might not have taken so long to come back if he had just bitten the bullet and dealt with the problem.

By going ahead and fixing a problem that wasn't getting any better on its own, Tiger could be playing again in 5 or 6 months... and maybe be a major force again by next year.

As for the skeptics who are ready to write him off (again), here's a parting thought. Jack Nicklaus won majors #13 and #14 in 1975 -- the Masters and the PGA. Then came his last 4 majors:
  • 1978 Open Championship
  • 1980 US Open
  • 1980 PGA Championship
  • 1986 Masters
Think about that. Besides the fact that he won a Career Slam for his last 4 majors -- pretty cool, eh? -- look at the time gaps. Three years passed between #14 (in 1975) and #15 (1978), and another 2 years between #15 and #16 (1980). Many of you may not know that Jack rebuilt his golf swing with Jim Flick in 1979 because he felt he had gotten too upright, so he won #16 and #17 with a new swing. And then he basically retired from the game, meaning 6 years passed between #17 (1980) and #18 (1986).

Jack missed 3 years between majors, then 2 more years, and finally 6 more years. So he needed 11 years to get his final 4 majors. Are you with me so far?

Let's give Tiger the rest of 2014 to recover. Now it's 7 years since his last major, and he's 39. Suppose he comes out pain-free in 2015 and finishes the year with one major, giving him 15 when he turns 40. Could a pain-free Tiger get to 19 majors by the time he's 46? That's 4 majors in 6 years. And bear in mind that, during the worst of his back pain this year, with very little practice time, he still managed to post a 65 and a 66 on the weekend at two of the toughest courses he faced.

And that's assuming his career ended at age 46. I'm not sure it will.

Could a healthy Tiger still make it to 19? I sure wouldn't bet against him.

Yeah, I think he made the right choice too.

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