Doctors say knee surgery shouldn’t slow Tiger

June 16, 2008

Tiger Woods’s post-Masters arthroscopic knee surgery to repair cartilage in his knee is not likely to have any long-term effect on his professional career, according to leading orthopedic surgeons.

The surgeons were careful to stress that they don’t have access to his medical records, but said that Woods’s expected recovery time of four to six weeks suggests that the damage to his knee is not severe.

“Your knee has an extra layer of cartilage called the meniscus, which provides cushion for the knee,” said Dr. Yi-Meng Yen, a surgeon trained in sports medicine who is currently a fellow at Harvard Medical School. “Tiger’s surgery sounds like a debridement [trimming] of a tear in the meniscus.”

With a normal recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery, Yen said, Woods should be able to play at the level he’s accustomed to well into his 40s.

“He’s in tremendous physical shape,” Yen said. “Even if he does develop arthritis, a lot of people have a very high pain threshold, especially athletes, and he might not even feel it.

“This may never hurt him well into the senior tour,” Yen said.

Only Tiger can answer whether the injury affected his play at Augusta, Yen said, but the pain could have had an effect on him that wasn’t perceptible to anyone watching. Certainly he played some of the best golf of his career during the time his knee was hurting (since the middle of 2007, according to Woods’s agent).

“Elite athletes tend to push themselves to the limit before getting surgery — they hang on as long as they can and then get the surgery done,” Yen said.

Dr. Tom O’Dowd, an orthopedic surgeon at Virtua Hospitals in New Jersey, said Woods’s injury should not have affected his range of motion — the main problem would have been dealing with the pain.

“Tiger is the kind of guy who looks so focused that the knee probably doesn’t bother him as much when he’s swinging as it does when he’s walking or climbing in and out of bunkers,” O’Dowd said. “Athletes who are head cases have real problems with something like this, but Tiger can probably block out the pain.”

The knee injury was likely attributable, at least in part, to his powerful golf swing, O’Dowd said, which places a tremendous amount of stress on his left knee.

To get a picture of how hard he swings his driver, think about this: Tiger’s left foot sometimes moves as much as eight inches forward from his address position to his finish position simply because of the force of his swing, according to Brady Riggs, a Top 100 Teacher for Golf Magazine.

Riggs has also had arthroscopic knee surgery, and he said that he was most affected when playing unusual shots, like from a bunker or an uneven lie.

“It can make it harder to maneuver the ball, hitting it low or hitting a high draw, because you have to use more knee flex than usual,” Riggs said.

O’Dowd added that Woods’s recovery will probably involve non-impact exercises like swimming and bike riding for the first few weeks, but that the knee should already feel better. O’Dowd said that Dr. Thomas Rosenberg, who performed the surgery in Park City, Utah, is one of the best.

“Rosenberg is very well-know and innovative,” O’Dowd said. “It’s almost overkill to have a surgeon like that perform what sounds like such a routine surgery, but Tiger’s got the A-Team working on him.”

Woods’s plan to return by the Memorial Tournament on May 29 — about six weeks from now-sounds about right to O’Dowd.

“When a cop or a fireman has this surgery, I tell them not to go back to work for four or five weeks,” O’Dowd said. “But an office worker can go back within three or four days.”

If history is any indication, Woods will be tough to beat when he gets back. After his knee surgery in December 2002, which sidelined him for two months, his first tournament back was the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, host course for the 2008 U.S. Open. The result: another win.

Woods, who had been playing some of the best golf of his career before his surgery, could come back even better than he was before the surgery, according to Top 100 Teacher Dave Phillips.

“You never want to say an injury is good,” Phillips said. “But the silver lining here may be that Tiger becomes more accurate with the driver.”

If Woods has an Achilles’ heel, it’s accuracy with the driver. (He’s currently 151st on Tour.) The problem, according to Phillips, is that Woods fires his hips so fast that sometimes his trunk can’t keep up and his arms have to fire prematurely, which can cause hooks and blocks.

“If the knee causes him to slow down his hips just a little bit, he’ll start hitting the ball straighter,” Phillips said. “Then everyone will be in trouble again.”