A man who names his luxury yacht “Privacy” isn’t exactly the type to share his inner feelings with the world.
To digress briefly, “Privacy”? Really? Not “Neptune” or “Nautilus” or his wife/mother’s name? Always thought that was very odd.
But whatever. Tiger Woods isn’t the type to get generally get publicly confessional. There have been limited examples as he’s grown older and clearly started to think about legacy matters. But Woods has always been pretty much closed off.
At the New Year, to some surprise, Woods revealed that he’d had back surgery for the fifth time. This was a fourth microdiscectomy, a fairly minor procedure for normal beings. Like the three previous, it was to prevent a disc pinching a nerve and causing discomfort.
Between microdiscectomies three and four, however, Woods underwent back fusion surgery, a more invasive procedure. Again, it’s not a huge thing for most people, but it is potentially career-threatening for an elite golfer.
The ‘last’ surgery that wasn’t
At the time, Tiger said in more than one interview the fusion would be his last back surgery. If it didn’t work and he required more procedures, he’d probably retire.
I’m not one of these writers who insists that people in the public eye aren’t allowed to change their mind. Vacillating on matters about your own body is absolutely acceptable.
But clearly, there was an existential element to Tiger’s future career involved. Although the doctor concerned pronounced the procedure a complete success, there was obviously doubt in Woods’ mind. (Every one of Tiger’s many surgeries has been immediately hailed a complete success, and some of them simply haven’t been).
Hence the surprise at the most recent operation. Woods’ friend Rory McIlroy revealed in Abu Dhabi that it had taken place before Christmas, after Tiger’s last appearance: the the Father-Son event in Florida with his son Charlie.
Rory said Tiger was back on his feet in a couple of days. He painted a rosy picture of Woods not quite saying he was back on the range grinding, but giving that impression.
‘God, I hope so’
Fast forward to the weekend, and Tiger appears on air with CBS’ Jim Nantz at the Genesis Invitational, the former LA Open where he now acts as host.
Nantz didn’t dig too deep in the interview, which was basically advertising for the sponsors. He did ask about Tiger’s state of health, and whether he’d make it to the Masters.
“God, I hope so” said Woods – hardly a statement of intent. There was no detail, but from what he did say it seems chipping and putting are the extent of his golf activities.
If that’s so, there’s surely no way he’s playing at Augusta. It’s just 45 days away.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 21, 2021
Tiger’s struggles after the first back surgery
If we take Tiger’s three previous procedures of this kind as a guide, it’s clear that he shouldn’t even be entertaining playing at the Masters.
His first microdiscectomy in early 2014 saw him return by the Quicken Loans tournament that June. That’s roughly the timescale between his latest surgery and this upcoming Masters.
But after that comeback he played just four more events that year. He shut down after the PGA Championship, re-emerging in 2015.
By September that year he was ailing again, and underwent two more back procedures. He missed all of 2016, and then after an abortive, two-tournament restart in 2017, had the fusion surgery and missed all of 2017 as well.
So that first procedure and a probably over-quick return eventually resulted in an enforced absence of two full years. That should set alarm bells ringing.
On borrowed time
I don't think we're gonna see The Cat on the golf course for a while.
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) February 21, 2021
Part of Tiger’s story now is that it is insane to write him off. Coming back from his various ailments – physical, mental and behavioural – to win the Masters in 2019 proved he could do anything, surely?
Well, up to a point. Tiger may have the greatest mental fortitude in golf history – certainly since Hogan – but physically he’s now on borrowed time.
It took Woods three years of surgeries and rehab plus another year and a half getting competitively ready to win at Augusta. At 45, and with a battered body, he simply doesn’t have that time now.
This is not to say he can’t come back to play competitively again, or even win. But the odds are far greater than they were in 2017, and grow with each passing month.
There will be more realistic chances further down the line
The urge to compete and the feeling he’s often expressed recently of his lack of time left no doubt will weigh heavily.
But again, if Woods’ past injury history – not just his back surgeries – tells us anything, the clear message is “don’t hurry back”.
In the short-term, there’s surely no way he can play at Augusta without risking more serious damage. A steady spell of rehab is needed, and it will test Woods’ formidable powers of determination to get through such a process yet again.
I’d back him to get through that and compete at the very top level again, if he’s of a mind to do it. But in the meantime, giving up an outside chance – at the very best – at this year’s Masters will give him more realistic chances further down the line.