Back injury could end Tiger Woods’ golf career -- or he could return for the British Open

Mike Ehrmann

Tiger Woods remains sidelined as he recovers from back surgery, which at least one prominent spine specialist believes could bring the formerly top-ranked golfer to his knees.

Tiger Woods, as the world well knows, is not on the tee sheet for this week's U.S. Open.

The former world No. 1 may be ready to return to competitive golf by the time the British Open rolls around in a month, or, according to a spine surgeon who says he operated on Seve Ballesteros, the career of the 14-time major champion may be just about over because the pain in his back will recur once he starts playing again and be too much to overcome.

"I think [Tiger] had a treatment that is going to limit very much his possibility to return to work and to play," Alfred Bonati, an orthopedic surgeon with the Bonati Institute in Hudson, Fla., told SB Nation recently about what he believes was the wrong surgical approach for Woods.

"When these athletes are injured ... they lose skills," said Bonati, who, along with several other doctors we spoke with, has treated professional athletes but has never worked with Woods and has no direct knowledge of his therapeutic remedy. "The next thing that happens is they quit."

Anyone watching Woods grimace through his most recent competitive round on March 9 at Doral, or who has even a passing awareness of his litany of injuries, knows that the golfer who won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg and shredded knee is no quitter.

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They are also no doubt are familiar with Woods’ driving passion to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship titles. At 38 and after missing the Masters in April for the first time in his professional career as he recovered from back surgery, Woods’ dream of winning five more majors and along the way overtaking Sam Snead’s mark of 82 PGA Tour victories remains the same.

The question is whether his aging and much-operated-on body can achieve the goals he has worked his professional life to achieve.

Still sidelined after a March 31 microdiscectomy to repair a herniated disc and relieve pressure on a nerve, Woods said three weeks ago that he was not yet able to swing a club fully and was uncertain when he would be able to get back to competitive golf. Opinions of some prominent back surgeons unaffiliated with Tiger range from maybe never, to soon, to next year.

With elite athletes returning to their sports within some 12 to 20 weeks, on average, Andrew Hecht believed Woods, who engages in "a lot of explosive twisting, torsional motion," is "not anywhere else but where he probably should be."

Basing his comeback for the Open Championship on July 17, or any other specific event, would likely not be the best move for Woods.

"He’s progressing and probably doing everything smart to make sure that when he gets back, he stays back," said Hecht, chief of spine surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "He’s not rushing his recovery to make one tournament or another. He’s taking the long view about his career, I’m sure, about when is the right time for him to get back into tournament golf."

"If Tiger were 25," Leighton said, "he would probably be back by now."

Michael Leighton, a sports medicine specialist at the Palm Beach Orthopedic Institute, believes Hoylake could have a Tiger sighting.

"My initial thought when he announced that he had surgery was he was looking at a two- to three-month [recovery period]," Leighton said.

Woods’ statement that he would need two weeks to get tourney-ready once his doctors gave him the green light to begin swinging clubs may be overly optimistic, but Leighton would not be surprised if Tiger made it to the venue on which he claimed major title No. 11.

"My impression is that if he moves along at a reasonable pace, he could be ready for the British Open," said Leighton, who noted that Woods’ age may hinder his recovery but should not prohibit a return to competition.

"If Tiger were 25," Leighton said, "he would probably be back by now."

For sure, those who believed Tiger might make it to Pinehurst for this week’s U.S. Open did not recognize the "big deal" it was for Woods to go under the knife, even if said scalpel left just tiny incisions, according to Selene Parekh, associate professor of surgery in Duke University’s orthopedic surgery department.

August, for the PGA Championship, was a more realistic target date for Tiger than the Open Championship in July, opined Parekh, who suggested that even then may be too soon for Tiger to get back into the fray.

"The reality is he may miss August and you’re looking into September," Parekh told us, adding that a 2011 study of professional golfers who underwent the same surgery as Woods took some six months to get back to their jobs and that Tiger could miss the remainder of the 2014 season.

If Woods were done for the year, which Parekh believed was not the case, the time would give more opportunity to focus on his rehab and the conditioning of his spine.

"The last thing you want is someone to come back too soon and re-injure himself," said Parekh, who said Woods may well resume his career "around early September."

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Tiger Woods, Photo credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The good news for Woods, he added, was that most golfers rebound from the type of operation he underwent.

"I think he’ll return to elite form," said Parekh, stating that his oft-repaired knees and Achilles tendon were potential career-enders, but not his back. "I don’t think this will be it."

Bonati, who said he operated on the facet joints in Ballesteros’ spine sometime around 2000, would have performed the same procedure on Woods before embarking on a microdiscectomy.

According to Bonati, he contacted Woods’ handlers about consulting with his medical team. Had Tiger's staffers responded to his overture, Bonati would have told them the surgery did not address Tiger’s primary problem, which was the stress that the golf swing puts on the joints around the spine that enable movement and rotation.

"Those areas need to be treated initially," said Bonati. "Treat the facets, then the results are immediate in the patient [and you] understand if they are doing better or they are not ... I suggested he treat [the facets] first and now we have exactly what I said, that he’s not going to be able to play."

"I think he’ll return to elite form," said Parekh. "I don’t think this will be it.

By ignoring the facets, Bonati said that Woods’ doctors ensured their patient will "be in pain and he is going to be very dissatisfied with the surgery and he is not going to be able to perform and his quality of playing [will] suffer."

Removing the extremely small facets does nothing but remove the pain, said Bonati, who responded to a call from Ballesteros’ doctor who told him the golfer needed help.

"I saw on television that he was unable to move and he had his caddie picking up his balls from the hole because he was unable to really bend," Bonati said.

Within a week of the facet treatment, Ballesteros went on to qualify for the Masters, according to Bonati.

Woods exited the game as No. 1 in the world but has since lost his top ranking and more to Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson (No. 2), and Bubba Watson (No. 3). Chances are good he would have plunged down the rankings ladder had he remained in the field and performed as he did before undergoing surgery. His most recent victory was last August at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, shortly before he blamed a soft hotel mattress for his back woes, which may actually have begun a year earlier.

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No one, not even Tiger Woods, knows when his back will allow him to resume his career as one of the top golfers in the world, let alone enjoy every day activities like playing catch with his kids. Even casual fans know that it’s now six years and counting since Woods last lifted the trophy in a grand slam event, and if Tiger’s will to win has anything to do with his recovery, he’ll be back in the hunt as ferocious a competitor as he’s ever been and stay there for some time.

And while Tiger’s health issues may be the prime reason for his inconsistency that resulted in only one top-10 finish on the PGA Tour since that victory at Firestone, there’s the little matter of the increasing strength of his opponents and their own desires to win.

Still, ambition burns bright in Woods, who continues to express optimism for the future.

"There are a couple records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break," he said on his website when he announced he had undergone back surgery. "Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine."

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