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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Lightning in a Bottle

I'm going to talk about why Tiger's play seems a bit more erratic than most fans expect, but let's take a moment to appreciate what he did Saturday.

Tiger set at least two personal records. The 30 he shot on his first nine was the best nine he's ever shot by two strokes, and the 65 he shot is his best-ever round at THE PLAYERS.

Think about that, folks. A year ago Tiger wasn't even sure he'd ever be able to play, and yet Saturday he played a round that was better than anything the "Unbeatable Tiger" of the early 2000s was able to do. That's pretty special.


But it's that kind of special performance that makes fans wonder why Tiger is so erratic. Why does his game seem to be so hit-and-miss?

In one of my posts I said I didn't expect Tiger to really start winning for maybe 18 to 24 months. The reason -- and it's a reason that affects all kinds of athletes who have surgeries that affect their spine -- is how nerves heal.

I don't mean nerves as in a player's mental state. I mean the physical neural pathways that let the brain tell the muscles what to do.

Tiger mentioned early on that some of the players who had gone through back surgery told him that it had taken as much as two years before they felt "right." When Colts quarterback Payton Manning had neck surgery, it took the better part of two years for him to return to the field. And, as it turns out, there's a medical reason for that.

While doctors can predict how quickly muscles and bones will heal, they can't do the same with nerves. The pure and simple fact is that nerves are somewhat magical in their behavior. What western medicine describes as electrical impulses traveling through bundles of nerve fibers as they leap little gaps called synapses, eastern medicine describes as a mystical force called chi that flows through meridians or channels throughout the body. When you see those Chinese martial arts movies where masters battle each other with energy bursts, they're flinging chi at each other.

That may sound hokey to western ears, but the chi explanation leads to results that even western doctors have trouble arguing against. Nerves resist easy explanations because nerves march to their own drumbeat.

Here's some info from two different websites, this one on how nerves heal and this one on recovery from surgery. Let me give you a quick and simplified summary, snagged from that first site.
Regeneration time depends on how seriously your nerve was injured and the type of injury that you sustained. If your nerve is bruised or traumatized but is not cut, it should recover over 6-12 weeks. A nerve that is cut will grow at 1mm per day, after about a 4 week period of ‘rest’ following your injury. Some people notice continued improvement over many months.
Sensory nerves are more resilient than motor nerves and can recover sensation months or years after injury.
Motor nerves have a time limit for healing. The reason for this is a structure called the ‘motor endplate’, where the nerve joins into the muscle. If the motor endplate receives no nerve impulse for more than 18-24 months, it dies away and there is no longer any way that the muscle can be activated by the nerve. The muscle then whithers away. Thus surgical repair of motor nerves needs to happen within 12-18 months of the injury.
Now bear in mind that this is info on nerve healing in general, not nerve healing specific to athletes. A normal person who doesn't push his or her body to extremes on a daily basis will "feel normal" sooner than an athlete, simply because the demands on the nervous system are different.

But note that damaged nerves grow very, very slowly and that sensory nerves -- the nerves that give Tiger the "feels" he's been trying to relearn -- can take much longer to recover than the motor nerves that control the muscles. In a worse case scenario, the motor control can take up to two years to return (if it doesn't return by then, it probably won't return at all) but the sensory nerves can't even be predicted that THAT accurately.

That's probably the source of Tiger's erratic performance. While the motor activity in his muscles seems to be recovering quite quickly, the sensory nerves are taking their own sweet time. He feels a number of different things when he swings, and different groups of nerves function at different levels of consistency. Some days it's more hit-and-miss, while other days give him a more complete overall performance.

And then there are days like Saturday, where they all got their act together at the same time and Tiger catches lightning in a bottle.

The fact that we're seeing this sort of thing begin to happen more frequently is a good sign. It doesn't tell us how soon Tiger will return to his old form, but it certainly indicates that it WILL happen sooner or later.

And that is very good news for the golf world... but maybe not such good news for those young guns who want to see the old Tiger in action.

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