Tiger Woods Faces an Uphill Battle After His Second Back Surgery

September 19, 2015

It would be easy to write off Tiger Woods now, so simple to say, “He’s finished.” This time, it might be even true.

Woods underwent microdisectomy surgery on his back Wednesday. You might consider it minor surgery, but Woods wouldn’t. Back surgery is never minor surgery.

Worse, this is Tiger’s second microdisectomy. The first one came in March of 2014. Dr. Charles Rich performed both, this last one in Park City, Utah, and a statement from Dr. Rich made the procedure sound matter-of-fact: “The decision was made to remove a small disc fragment that was pinching his nerve. The microsurgery was a complete success and he was discharged Thursday night.”

Back surgery is a golfer’s worst nightmare, micro or otherwise. We can hope for the best for Tiger. It would be a shame if back problems finally brought down the curtain on the most exciting golfer of the last two decades.

Woods said it was “certainly disappointing” that he required the surgery but added that he’s a fighter and expects to make a full recovery. Every procedure, every recovery and every athlete is different, but let’s be honest: it was just about a year after his last back surgery that he began to look like he could go full throttle with his swing again. Woods turns 40 in December, and the clock is ticking.

How many golfers have played well into their mid- or late-40s? A handful, but those that did — Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Vijay Singh — didn’t undergo two back surgeries and a handful of knee operations, including one full reconstruction, before the age of 40, as Woods did.

In the short run, this is disappointing because Woods was showing significant signs of progress with his game. He had moments, even a few full rounds, where he looked like at least a little like the Tiger of 2013, the guy who won five tournaments.

This setback probably means he’s back to Square One. He won’t play the Frys.com Open in a few weeks, as he’d planned. He won’t be able to play the tournament he hosts in the Bahamas, the Hero World Challenge. He won’t play the America’s Golf Cup with Matt Kuchar in Mexico City. He will return to competitive golf when he is able, whenever that is. The spring of 2016? The Masters? Maybe.

This setback costs Tiger time, a valuable commodity that was once almost limitless for him and now is dwindling with alarming rapidity. If 2016 turns into a lost year or even a lost half-year, that’s another big blow to Tiger’s comeback hopes. He hasn’t won a PGA Tournament in more than two years. He hasn’t won a major championship in seven years. Time is getting shorter, and the odds are getting longer.

You can count the number of players who putted great into their 40s on two hands. Ben Crenshaw. Nicklaus. Hale Irwin. Loren Roberts. Brad Faxon. Steve Stricker. A few others.

Woods is at the threshold of that time in life when the hands and the putter don’t obey the brain the way they used to. He was a dominant player because of his iron play, his short game and his clutch putting. We haven’t seen much of the latter lately, mainly because the rest of his game hasn’t been good enough to put him into pressure situations.

His drive and his motivation have been sorely tested these last two years. Some observers think he’s long since lost that edge, that maybe it left along with his aura of invincibility and his marriage in the wake of the infamous fire hydrant accident. Some observers think he doesn’t practice like he used to, either because he physically can’t or he simply no longer wants it the way he used to. That might be true. These days, when Tiger is the last man on the range after a tournament round, some say it smacks of a student cramming for a final exam because he hadn’t done any studying until the last minute.

There aren’t cameras recording Tiger’s practice sessions, so we don’t know how hard he works or how much he still wants to climb the mountain that is competitive golf. Golf already has a new Big Three — Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day. Day, especially, has been playing the kind of golf Tiger used to play. He hits it long, he hits his irons close, he chips it close and he makes plenty of putts.

These guys are a new level of competition, a higher level than Tiger ever faced in the prime of his career, and they don’t have the scar tissue that Tiger’s old opponents had. They aren’t intimidated by, afraid of or maybe even impressed by Woods.

It would take Tiger’s best golf to keep up with the new Big Three. Can Tiger do that at 40 after a second back operation? It would be easy to say no, easy to write him off and say he’s done. But the reason not to do that is simple: he is Tiger Woods.

For the last 20 years, that has been plenty good enough. Time is undefeated, though. The aging process eventually claims every athlete. Has Tiger’s time passed? By next summer, we may have an answer.

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