Tiger Woods is making headlines with his return to professional golf at this week’s Quicken Loans National in Bethesda, Maryland, taking place from June 26th to the 29th. He won’t win a green jacket — he may not win at all — but it doesn’t matter. For Woods, getting back on the course this week will be a victory in itself. He credits listening to his body and making the decision to undergo minimally invasive spine surgery with saving his career, allowing him (as he explained during a May press conference) to know he can “continue playing at the elite level for as long as I deem I want to do it…. prior to the surgery, I didn’t think I would have [had] much of a playing career.”
Woods was kept out of this year’s Masters and U.S. Open due to a pinched nerve near his spinal cord, likely the consequences of overuse from the repetitive motion of his powerful swing. What had started as a twinge during his hard-fought rounds in the Barclays Tournament in August 2013 turned into intense back pain that radiated down through his leg. At a press conference earlier this week, Woods explained how this pain differed from previous sports injuries he’d suffered:
Pre-procedure, … I wasn’t able to function. I couldn’t get out of bed. I just couldn’t do any normal activities. When I blew out my knee and even had my Achilles problems, I could still do things. I would still be able to function. This was different. Anyone’s that’s had any kind of nerve impingement, it’s no joke.
On March 31 of this year, Woods had a minimally invasive microdiscectomy performed to relieve his constant pain. In this procedure, which is often performed at the Spine Institute Northwest, a tiny incision is made through which the surgeon extracts small amounts of tissue or bone that are compressing the nerve and causing pain. This procedure does not involve fusion, and because it is minimally invasive, as much as possible of the muscle, ligament, and tissue surrounding the nerve is preserved. Woods had a small amount of soft tissue removed, taking pressure off his irritated spinal nerve. He told members of the press that immediately after his outpatient procedure, “that nerve impingement, that pain that I was feeling going down my leg was gone.”
Woods still had a long road ahead of him to get back on the greens. His initial prognosis was that he could potentially begin playing competitively by late summer, and that it would be even longer before he was back to playing golf at his elite level. Woods worked extremely closely with his trainers and also with his doctors on careful rehabilitation; though bending to pick up the ball and sitting in the golf cart were out, with time Woods was able to practice different strokes and slowly build up the yardage of his drives. He also got advice from other elite athletes who’d had microdiscectomies, including the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo, who had an endoscopically-assisted minimally invasive procedure for a herniated intervertebral disc in December 2013.
His team’s cautious approach — and Woods’ willingness to stick with it, despite occasionally feeling “antsy” to get back in the game — seems to have paid off. This week, Woods broke fifty in his first nine holes since his March surgery, and he’s looking ahead to a long career. As he told reporters earlier this week, “… I’ve had people come up to me and say they had the same procedure and got their life back and that’s basically how I felt. I was able to do things, and do things that I normally took for granted.”
image by Keith Allison