His comments in Mexico some 10 days ago sounded ominous, certainly more doom and gloom than Tiger Woods is accustomed to admitting. His recovery from back surgery was going slowly, he had yet to begin rehab, noted that he played in pain in 2015 and couldn’t say when he would return to competitive golf.
The news Friday that Woods underwent another procedure in Park City, Utah, to alleviate discomfort from the Sept. 16 microdiscectomy bring his words into sharper focus and make it fair to wonder if a lost 2015 season will be followed by another one in 2016 — or any golf at all.
Woods announced he had a follow-up procedure, so it’s unclear if this was another surgery or something different. The surgeon who performed the March 31, 2014, and Sept. 16 operations also handled this procedure, according to a story posted on Woods’ website.
Dr. Charles Rich was quoted as saying Woods was doing well and would make a full recovery, but Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, declined to comment further. What did the procedure entail? What is different about this recovery?
It can’t be good Woods will be unable to attend a scheduled media day for his Hero World Challenge event on Wednesday, nor the opening to a golf course he designed in Houston the following day. The release said he was on bed rest.
Woods won’t be walking any time soon, let alone getting into serious rehabilitation and hitting golf balls. While Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy continue to hone their craft and elevate their standing, Woods is unable to come close to keeping pace. More time on golf’s sideline will only widen that gap.
And yet, that is ludicrous talk at the moment, isn’t it? The idea of Woods competing with the world’s best? He might not be ranked among the top 500 in the world when he returns — whenever that is.
It will probably be months before Woods is able to play in a golf tournament or even should play in a golf tournament, the idea he could be competitive a dream story that not even the best player of this generation could author.
Woods won a U.S. Open despite barely practicing because of a knee and — as it turned out — fibula problem. After ACL surgery, he returned to win in his third tournament and won seven times around the world. But as even Woods acknowledged last year, the knee problems and the back problems are far different.
“Back injuries are no joke,” he said.
And yet, Woods returned from his first back surgery in three months in June 2014, competing in only four tournaments before he needed to shut it down. After a few months away, he returned in December 2014 and played only three times before taking another nine weeks off — to deal with chipping issues and the lower-back stiffness that forced him to withdraw from the Farmers Insurance Open in early 2015.
He came back at the Masters, and as it turned out, the tie for 17th provided him and observers with false hope. Under the circumstances, it was a strong performance, but it led Woods to think he could compete in the remaining major championships — an honorable goal but one that had him rushing to regain his form, when clearly he needed much more time.
As Woods noted last week, “Last year I tried to play after the back surgery and it wasn’t fun because of all the pain. Also after my last surgery, I was changing my swing and to be able to do that successfully you have to practice a lot, and I could not practice because I was doing the rehab. It was a very complicated situation because of that.”
Actually, it was pretty simple. Back injuries and surgery require recovery time. Woods also needed time to work on his game, which was a work in progress due to a new swing coach. Put it together and it doesn’t add up to a successful scenario.
Jason Bohn and Graham DeLaet are two PGA Tour golfers who also endured microdiscectomy surgery. Both have had their share of issues since. Bohn’s surgery was in 2008 and he didn’t play for five months, then had only two top-10 finishes the next year. DeLaet’s surgery was in 2011; he took six months off, admitted he came back too soon, and has had to withdraw on a handful of occasions since.
And yet, every time Woods tees it up, there are enormous expectations, his included.
Those need to be tempered greatly now. Woods shouldn’t be thinking about the Masters in April, he should be concerned with getting healthy, figuring out his swing, finding the right mix of practice and competition, taking it slow. What is the rush at this point? He’ll be 40 in December. What difference does it make if another year goes by and he doesn’t play until he is 41?
The collateral damage of playing when not physically ready also leads to a crisis in confidence. Woods had shot one round in the 80s in his entire career before 2015, and that was during a wind-blown storm at the 2002 Open. This year, he shot in the 80s three times, including an 85 at the Memorial. At St. Andrews, a place he knows and reveres, he didn’t come close to making the cut.
Remember when there was a running tally of how often he opened a tournament by making a bogey? First-tee jitters were the norm, in part because Woods’ game was still suffering, swing thoughts raging.
The unfortunate thing for Woods is that when the time comes for him to compete again, he needs to do just that. He can’t hide. There are no minor league rehabilitation assignments for golfers. He needs to play tournament golf, inside the ropes, under pressure. He needs to see the fairways lined with spectators and the television commentators describing the action. Two-and-a-half-hour rounds on a golf cart in Florida will never simulate that.
Of course, the enormous standard he helped create dogs him every step of the way. Woods needs to come out and say, “Hey, this might take a while. My game could be ugly. I don’t expect to win. But I need to play, need to figure this out again.” Who could argue with that?
But that is not Woods. That is not how his brain operates. He tees it up expecting the best, and an unrelenting public analyzes every swing, every shot, every hole, making that process all the more difficult.
There is understandable chatter today that Woods is done. That seems premature. The man is too driven, too talented, to not have another say in this. Even his comments last week suggested he sees a bigger picture — even if his actions don’t always follow.
“It’s important for me to have more than 18 majors when all is said and done,” said Woods, whose 14th and most recent came in 2008. “It took Jack [Nicklaus] his whole career to achieve it and mine is not done yet. I believe that I have a very good record for 20 years on the tour. The main thing is to get fit and reach my 40s with good health to be as successful as Vijay [Singh], who won most of his tournaments at that age.
“I want to play at an elite level with the new kids for a long, long time.”
It’s an admirable goal, even if most believe it is folly. But there is nothing wrong with dreaming big thoughts, as long as he takes the necessary, cautious steps along the way.
Patience, never a Woods attribute, is needed in abundance, now more than ever.