Over four years after his last victory, Tiger Woods remains the biggest story in golf, and it’s not even close.
Between Sergio Garcia’s Masters win, Justin Thomas’ breakout season, and Jordan Spieth’s continued climb towards immortality, there were a number of big developments in the professional game this year. And yet, none of them moved the needle as much as Woods’ week at the Hero World Challenge, his first competitive action since undergoing spinal fusion surgery.
It was a successful week for the 14-time major champion, so fans are obviously excited. But it’s not like we haven’t been down this road before – the spinal fusion was Woods’ fourth back surgery, and his past comebacks to competition haven’t always been smooth. The legend’s journey to regain his pre-2014 form has become one of the most compelling odysseys in sports, full of twists, turns, glimmers of hope, and, ultimately, disappointments.
Below, relive Woods’ long road back to the PGA Tour and see why golf fans should consider tempering their expectations in the months ahead.
In case you haven’t heard, Tiger Woods has returned to competitive golf.
The 14-time major champion spent most of 2017 recovering from spinal fusion surgery, his fourth back procedure in the past four years. When he circled the Hero World Challenge as the site of his return, many fans were left wondering how his body would hold up during the four-day grind.
Woods quickly answered those questions, shooting three rounds in the 60s en route to T-9 finish. Along the way, he was applauded for his revamped swing and seemingly relaxed state of mind.
By most standards, Woods’ return was a howling success. But a closer look at his history suggests that we may need to temper our expectations in the months ahead.
Woods had already suffered a number of injuries in his career before the back problems began. In 2008, he famously won a 91-hole marathon of a U.S. Open while playing on a broken leg. He then underwent surgery to repair his ACL, shutting things down for the year.
His 2009 season was as dominant as ever, featuring seven wins and three runner-up finishes.
But back surgery is a different animal. According to Brandel Chamblee, a Golf Channel analyst known for his pointed criticisms of Woods’ game, the modern golf swing emphasises resistance on the right side on the backswing, followed by an abrupt and powerful change of direction at the top. This puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the lower back.
Source: Wall Street Journal
And while Woods has returned from back surgery in the past, the comebacks have never lasted for long, leading some to suggest that he has been too aggressive in rehabbing the most fragile part of his body.
Woods underwent his first back procedure, a microdiscectomy to repair a pinched nerve, in the spring of 2014, soon after imploding for a final round 78 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He was the defending champion.
He returned in late June at the Quicken Loans National. While he missed the cut by four, it was still an encouraging week — mostly because he remained healthy. “I had no setbacks. I got my feel for playing tournament golf,” he said.
Source: PGA Tour
Woods next headed to the British Open, where there was palpable excitement about his return. The host course, Royal Liverpool, was one that Woods had tamed in the past, and with his flair for the dramatic, many felt that the stage was set for an unlikely major win.
He humored the hype by shooting an opening 69, just three strokes off the pace. It didn’t last. Woods failed to break 73 for the rest of the week, tumbling all the way down to 69th place.
It was the last cut he survived that year. Woods withdrew from another favourite event, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, just eight holes into his final round. He said he suffered a re-injury after falling back into a bunker on the second hole of the day.
“It’s just the whole lower back,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Source: Golf Channel
Woods tried to press on at the following event, the PGA Championship, but missed the cut. From there, he shut things down, making his next PGA Tour start in January 2015 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Playing in front of the massive galleries at TPC Scottsdale, Woods struggled with his chipping, capping his week with an abysmal second round of 82 to miss the cut. He quoted Marshawn Lynch during a post-round interview, saying, “I’m just doing this so I don’t get fined.”
He then headed to the Farmers Insurance Open, but withdrew after just 11 holes after more back discomfort. That was the beginning of the single worst year on the course of his career.
Hopes soared when he returned for the Masters and tied for 17th…
…but they fell steadily over the ensuing weeks. Woods finished dead last at the Memorial Tournament, mostly due to the 85 he shot in the third round. It was the worst single-round score of his career.
While Woods was struggling across the board, his short game remained particularly awful. He had no distance control to speak of, leading to many overshot greens and big numbers. Whispers that he had contracted one of the most dreaded and mysterious ailments in all of golf — the yips — grew louder and louder.
The rest of the season didn’t go much better, but Woods did provide one parting highlight at the Wyndham Championship. Needing a podium finish to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs, he opened the event with rounds of 64 and 65 to claim a share of the 36-hole lead.
But his short game suffered over the weekend, and he wound up in a tie for 10th. The biggest disappointment was his triple-bogey seven on the 11th hole on Sunday — he finished just four strokes behind the winner.
With his first top 10 in well over a year, many golf fans were optimistic about Woods’ game heading into the 2016 season…
…but they were quickly let down. In September, Woods announced that he had undergone a second microdiscectomy for his pinched nerve. One month later, he underwent another procedure to “relieve discomfort.”
Those procedures required a lengthy recovery process, leaving Woods unable to play golf. To satisfy his hunger to compete, he played up to eight hours of Call of Duty a day — and often lost to seven-year-olds while playing online.
In the fall of 2016, he began to slowly plot his return to the PGA Tour. While Woods withdrew from both the Safeway Open and the Turkish Airlines Open, citing a lack of tournament readiness, he did ultimately appear at his foundation’s event, the Hero World Challenge.
Source: PGA Tour
His back looked good, but it was still a mixed bag of a week. Woods led the 17-man field in both birdies and double bogeys or worse, landing in 15th place.
Woods’ next event was the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open, where he was inaccurate off the tee and missed the cut by four. He withdrew from his next start at the Dubai Desert Classic after suffering back spasms.
He took it easy after that WD. While there was speculation that he would play in the Masters, he eventually chose to remove himself from the field, despite being cleared to play by his doctors.
Days later, Woods underwent his fourth back procedure: spinal fusion surgery.
The surgery took a toll on him. One month later, Woods was arrested for a DUI in Jupiter, Florida. Police officers found him passed out at the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz while parked on the side of the road, with damage to the driver’s side of the car. He had five different painkillers in his system.
In October, he pleaded guilty to one count of reckless driving and agreed to enter a diversion program to satisfy the DUI charge. He was also sentenced to 50 hours of community service, which he had already completed.
Source: Chicago Tribune
Given all of that, the golf world wasn’t exactly bracing itself for another comeback. But in August, a funny thing happened: Woods, who normally eschews social media, tweeted this video. Fans lost their minds.
Dr. gave me the ok to start pitching pic.twitter.com/tboq1L3Xdn
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) August 31, 2017
Encouraged by the response, he followed it up with another tweet.
Smooth iron shots pic.twitter.com/v9XLROZnfW
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) October 7, 2017
And in late October, he made it official: he would return to competition at the 2017 Hero World Challenge, set to kick off on November 30.
For the second consecutive year, the event played host to a media frenzy. And Woods did his part, delivering his best comeback performance yet. A Saturday 75 was his only hiccup en route to a T-9 finish, ahead of stars like Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson.
His short game was still a bit lacking, but there were plenty of other positive takeaways. He made some nice putts and hit drives of well over 300 yards, leading to his best finish since the 2015 Wyndham.
And what’s more, he looked free of pain. Spinal fusion should offer a better prognosis than the microdiscectomy surgeries. His agent Mark Steinberg called the procedure a “clear and final path.”
Source: Golf World
We’ll soon see how true those words are. Woods has run into unexpected roadblocks in his recovery in the past, and that could easily happen again.
But while you should take the hype with a grain of salt, don’t let that keep you from enjoying watching Woods try to recapture his glory days. Even after two decades and a slew of injuries, he’s still the biggest story in golf.
Now check out the next great sports star in the United States.
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