Tiger Woods, whose back surgery will force him to miss the Masters for the first time in his professional career, should return to complete health and competitive fitness if all goes well with his post-procedure rehab, according to a noted spine surgeon.
"I think there’s no reason not to expect [Woods] is going to be the same golfer he always was when he feels better," Dr. Andrew Hecht, who emphasized he had never met nor examined Woods and offered his views about back pain in general, told SB Nation by phone on Tuesday following the procedure that neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Rich performed on Tiger on Monday in Utah.
"Elite athletes who have microdiscectomies," said Hecht, the chief of spine surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who put Olympic, collegiate, and professional athletes in the elite category, "over 90 percent return to the exact same elite level of sport."
With the proper rest and rehab, which usually involves a core-strengthening program, professional football players return to the field within about 15 weeks. Professional golfers generally require less time than that to get back on the course.
"The expectation is that Woods should make a full recovery and resume his career when he’s ready," said Hecht.
That should certainly be good news for Woods, whose list of injuries his body has absorbed support the widely held notion that the world No. 1 is an "old" 38.
Woods’ left knee has been the subject of much scrutiny, given the multiple surgeries he has had on it since he was a student at Stanford. But there’s a lot more afflicting the 14-time major champion than just his wheels, and his back -- which seized up on him last August and forced him to quit this year’s Honda Classic and pull out of a title defense at Bay Hill -- has to be the biggest concern going forward.
Had Woods suffered from a bulging disc, as originally rumored but never confirmed by Team Tiger, he likely could have recovered without going under the knife.
"Typically, a bulging disc most of the time gets better with conservative care," Hecht said. "Back pain is a symptom, not a diagnosis [and] a very common problem that normally resolves with conservative care."
Such treatment usually involves physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, stretching, and isometric exercise to strengthen the muscles around the spine.
Should a bulging disc -- which Hecht likened to the insides of a jelly donut pushing against the back wall of the pastry -- worsen, and the gushy insides herniate and seep out, causing numbness or weakness in the leg (as Woods’ apparently did), a patient may undergo microdiscectomy surgery (which Woods did).
"Lastly, only after conservative care has failed, or the pain is severe, or the patient has developed leg pain or numbness or weakness do we ever talk about doing [microdiscectomy] surgery," said Hecht, who noted that the procedure removes the herniated piece of disc.
Of course, the back is just the latest in a series of wounds Woods has suffered over the years. Read the roster of such insults (thanks, in part, to Pete Madden and Luke Kerr-Dineen, and categorized by body part) and decide for yourself whether it’s amazing that this broken-down geezer can even bend down to tee it up:
- 1995 - Surgery to remove scar tissue, benign tumors
- 2002 - Procedure to drain fluid from around the ACL, remove cysts
- April 2008 - Cartilage repaired after the Masters but before winning U.S. Open in memorable playoff with Rocco Mediate
- June 2008 - Surgery to reconstruct ACL puts Tiger on the shelf for remainder of season
- April 2011 - Injures knee (MCL) during Masters
- May 2011 - Sore knee and ailing Achilles tendon knock Woods out of Players Championship for second straight year
- 1998 - Strains back prior to Kemper Open
- August 2013 - Mattress-related spasm drops Woods to his knees during The Barclays
- February 2014 - Lingering pain and spasms cut short Tiger's Honda Classic
- March 2014 - Back pain has Tiger grimacing throughout a final-round 78 at Doral
- March 2014 - Back pain results in a no-go at Bay Hill
- May 2010 - Reported bulging disc in his neck forces Woods out of Players Championship
- December 2008 - Injures right Achilles tendon during offseason
- December 2010 - Cortisone shot to ease nagging pain, which was likely dwarfed by his loss to Graeme McDowell in Chevron World Challenge
- April 2011 - Strains left Achilles tendon during shot from under Eisenhower Tree at the Masters
- May 2011 - (See above under "Knee" re: 2nd consecutive WD from Players)
- March 2012 - Pain in the left tendon causes a WD from Doral
- May 2013 - Injury Woods says started at The Players flares up, most noticeably at U.S. Open at Merion