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Can back surgery clear the path for Tiger Woods to make history?

Tiger Woods
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Tiger Woods seemed to struggle with back pain during his final round at Doral.

Tiger Woods just underwent surgery on his back. With any luck, it will also help his elbow, his knees, his head and his legacy. Woods played so well last year -- he won five of the 16 tournaments he entered and was the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year -- that it masked this simple truth: he played hurt for most of the year.

“I think we started to see it prior to last year’s U.S. Open,” says Woods’s close friend, longtime PGA player Notah Begay III. “It didn’t manifest itself in the back. He had elbow issues at the Players Championship. They escalated at U.S. Open. All those things are related. When you start making compensation for back pain, all these other injuries happen.

“This pain has been going on for quite some time. It hasn’t just happened in the last few weeks. There has been a research process, interviews, a lot of different people doing this. If this doesn’t get cleared up, it is certainly something that can hamper performance. I think that is what he is starting to realize.”

Woods is 38, he hasn’t won a major in six years and more people than ever question whether he can catch Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors. But the issue is not whether he can play well enough to do it. He can. He proved that last year. The issue is his health. This surgery -- the official term is “microdiscectomy” -- could salvage it.

Woods has always been a grinder, and the challenge now is pacing himself. That means rehabbing slowly enough, practicing deliberately but not too much, and limiting his time in the weight room. Woods has never been one to loaf around (he doesn’t even sleep much) and he has added a ton of muscle to the frame that blew away the field at the 1997 Masters. Critics wonder if Woods overdeveloped his body because he just wants to look good. The simple, more likely answer is that he worked out like crazy because he is Tiger Woods, and Tiger Woods does not half-ass anything.

“There might need to be a few adjustments as far his training regimen,” Begay says. “Tiger likes to work out, not because it benefits his golf, but he enjoys exercise.”

Woods has been more patient and forthcoming with the media in the last two years, but he is still intentionally evasive when it comes to his health. He is golf’s Jordan, its Tom Brady, and like Jordan and Brady, he has no interest in injury excuses and sees no benefit in dwelling on what might stop him. He expects to overcome everything. He doesn’t want to discuss the possibility of failure, because he does not want to think about it.

The evasiveness was there again in the statement on his website: “The goal is for Tiger to resume playing sometime this summer.” Summer starts June 21. The U.S. Open at Pinehurst is June 12-15. Taken literally, this would mean Tiger will likely miss the Open, but Begay said of playing at Pinehurst: “I think that’s the plan.”

Woods hopes to resume chipping and putting in three weeks. If rehab goes well, Begay can foresee Tiger playing the Memorial in late May, and maybe adding the St. Jude Classic, which he does not typically play, so he is properly prepared for the U.S. Open.

If you see Tiger before Pinehurst, it means one of two things: He came back too early, because he is a competition junkie, or the surgery was a magnificent success. If it’s the latter, Nicklaus’ record is in play again. That would mean Tiger is mostly healthy at age 38.

He is still the game’s best talent, with a feel for the game that is unrivaled. Give him a few months without any serious injury, without having to labor over putts and without wincing when he hits out of thick rough, and let’s see what he does.

Begay knows this better than most, and not just because he knows Tiger better than almost anybody. Begay’s own career was cut short by a back injury. And because the golf swing encompasses so many moving parts, his back injury changed his swing and affected him in other places. He even blames a torn meniscus on his back injury.

“My back issue is very similar,” Begay says. “It hampered me for 12 years. It’s just not fun. Maybe I didn’t have the right diagnosis. I never thought surgery was a good option for me. ...

“Based on the diagnosis, any time you are relieving pressure off a nerve that is a source of pain, the chance of getting rid of the pain is very high. Seeing how much pain he was in, how much therapy he was getting, just to go out and get through a round of golf, I think this was a great move because of what’s at stake.”

What’s at stake is Jack, and Sam Snead’s record of 82 Tour wins (Woods has 79). Woods alluded to both at the end of his statement, a clear message to those who count him out. Begay says he expects Woods back by the British Open “at the latest.”

Yes, it’s been a long time. Yes, Woods has fought through a lot of injuries, and it’s easy for casual fans (or even hardcore ones) to lump them together and decide his body is falling apart. Woods is betting otherwise. Can one surgery clear the path for the greatest golfer of his generation? This summer, we will find out.

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