ORLANDO, Fla. – The history of Tiger Woods will be written by records large and small – from his 15 major championships and 82 PGA Tour titles to his all-time best 683 weeks as the world’s top-ranked player. That history will also be told through a medical maze that has been as much a part of the narrative as any shot he’s ever hit.
Earlier this month in the Bahamas, Tiger was asked a general question about his nearly three decades of surgical procedures and he was quick to set the record: “I had 10 [surgeries], five knee, five back, so even 10,” he said, simply.
That’s 10 trips to post-op. That’s 10 extended rehabilitations and recoveries. That’s 10 comebacks that have spanned three decades.
In 1994, he had a benign tumor removed from his left knee to open what would become a revolving door to the operating room. Almost a decade later (2002), he had a cyst removed from the same knee. In ’08, he famously had arthroscopic surgery to repair his ACL and three years later he suffered an MCL sprain. Again, that was his left knee.
There was the 2014 procedure for a pinched nerve in his back, followed by two microdiscectomies in ’15.
Each surgery came with its own set of challenges and, at least until his most recent brush with the medical industry, his 2017 spinal-fusion surgery stood as his Moby-Dick. He went so far as describing that comeback as climbing Mount Everest with the peak being his victory at the 2019 Masters.
The pain, the effort, the energy, the dedication to overcome every setback was nothing short of Herculean. But that was before Tiger’s SUV crossed a median, an oncoming lane of traffic and was flung into a field on a hilly stretch of road just outside Los Angeles in February.
Even without any real updates, the images of Woods’ mangled SUV told an alarming story. Forget playing golf again, would he ever be able to walk again? Would he ever be able to play soccer with his daughter or golf with son?
Like the surgeries that came before February’s single-vehicle accident, there was post-op rehabilitation – so much rehabilitation – and therapy. Whether there’s a comeback, a true comeback that leads to 72-hole Tour events without golf carts, remains to be seen. What is clear is that this comeback will be unlike all the others.
“This one's been a lot harder,” he offered Friday at the PNC Championship with a haunting laugh. “It's been, yeah, the [right] leg was pretty messed up. I'm happy it's still attached.”
This isn’t about pain. Of all the legends of Tiger Woods, it was his victory at the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg and torn ACL that tell a story of relentless effort.
This isn’t about desire. His victory at Augusta National in ’19 and the Zozo Championship, where he tied Sam Snead for all-time Tour victories, was the only proof of concept needed on this front. The mind remains singularly focused.
What this is about, is whether his body – the same body that’s endured at least 10 different surgeries and countless hours of rehab – will ever again be willing.
At the moment, the answer is a resounding maybe.
“I just don't have the speed. It is what it is,” he said. “The ball doesn't fly as far. I can't generate the speed I used to, and you know, the body is not what it used to be.”
Tiger’s tune has changed slightly on this front the last few weeks. In his first interview since the accident in February, there was a darkness to his vision of the future.
“I don’t have to compete and play against the best players in the world to have a great life. After my back fusion, I had to climb Mount Everest one more time. I had to do it, and I did,” he said in the Golf Digest interview. “This time around, I don’t think I’ll have the body to climb Mount Everest, and that’s OK.”
A week later at his own Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, he sounded slightly more upbeat but still contended only “hit-and-giggle” events like this week’s PNC Championship, which he is playing alongside his son, Charlie, were in his foreseeable future.
On Friday at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, there seemed to be even more light shed on his potential competitive future. Endless hours will be spent dissecting Tiger’s pro-am round – with particular attention paid to the fact that for most of the second nine he didn’t take any full swings – but the only item of true note is that 10 months after being involved in a horrific car crash, Woods was back doing what he does best.
There will be those who will watch this weekend’s event and envision another comeback and more glory, but that ignores so much.
“It's going to be awhile,” Woods acknowledged when asked how close he is to a return to the Tour. “I couldn't walk this golf course even right now, and it's flat. I don't have the endurance. My leg is not quite right yet and it's going to take time. I'm a long way from playing tournament golf.”
Every one of Tiger’s 10 previous surgeries and comebacks were unique in their own way, but this injury and the surgeries he’s endured and this potential comeback for a player 13 days shy of his 46th birthday will be unlike any of the others.