By Arnie Leshin
His back is still hurting, his repaired spine is still a concern, he’s getting older, but it’s on the golf course that Tiger Woods finds his way around as the wealthiest golfer of all time.
He’d love to play more, but physically he just can’t. Mentally, he still has the magic, the popularity, and a huge bank account to which he often donates large amounts to charity. He’s been married, divorced, has two children, has been ticketed, arrested, paid a few fines in court, but he doesn’t fear the worse as he returns to the links for the first time in three months and relies on pain killers and his golf clubs.
He still seeks individual records that injuries and personal problems have deserted him. But when he plays in charity events, it’s a different path for the sport’s headliner, and on Sunday the 44-year-old Woods will make an appearance for a meaningful opportunity to access the fitness of his golf game and link his back to the hurt he feels from his spine. It’s not a question of what pains him most, but after four operations he’s now regarded as a wild card.
A wild card, maybe, but for charity and an return exhibition with Rory McElroy, Phil Mickelson and the likes of former National Football League rivals Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Brady hasn’t slow down, and at 43 is now the starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 20 years of carrying the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl championships. Manning is retired after helping the Denver Broncos hoist the Super Bowl trophy over the stunned Carolina Panthers.
But both he and Brady remain active. While Brady gets him some practice with high school players from the Tampa area and awaits his initial start with his new team as the NFL puts all the reopening pieces together from the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, Manning and his now retired younger brother, Eli, get in some rounds of golf. As for golf elites like McElroy and Mickelson, they line up for tournaments like they’re going out of style, and now slip a virus break to the background for a worthwhile charity to benefit coronavirus relief efforts.
But for Tiger Woods, it’s a different situation as he restarts the clock on his repaired spine, adds his long-time back problem, and finds himself back on the course for the first time in three months. There are times when he’s been much more inactive, but with each passing year, it becomes more of a test. When he last played in mid-February, he was stiff and uncomfortable as he shot an ignominious 11-over-par in the final two rounds of the Genesis Invitational and finished last among those that made the cut.
It appeared to be a minor setback at the time. But roughly one month later, he cited trouble with his cranky back and withdrew from a series of high-profile March tournaments that included the Arnold Palmer Invitational that he had already won eight times, followed by the PGA Tour — the signature event of the Players Championship — being suspended soon afterward, and with the Masters postponed the same day due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was not only a blow to those that regulate the golf tours, but especially for Woods himself, still idled like other pro athletes around the globe, But Woods went about his business, because unlike most of his brethren, has a shrinking window to add to his celebrated sporting legacy. He is presently tied with the late Sammy Snead for the most PGA career tour victories with 82, and his 15 major golf titles are only three behind the legendary Jack Nicklaus.
And so it’s not just Woods’ age that will pose a challenge going forward, there are questions about how long his back (and spine) can hold out. Many who have followed him through the years say that if he was to chase the record books, it would need to occur pretty soon. It’s probably more likely he would have success now rather than three, four or five years down the road. Most base this on medical science.
Then there are those who add that no professional golfer had returned to competition after the kind of fusion surgery performed on Woods. Then again, he’s proved the experts wrong already. Some people have an incredible amount of reserve in every other part of their body or their muscles are stronger and can support a significantly degenerated spine to perform at a high level.
Woods’ first step back is Sunday’s match at the Medalist Golf Club, Woods’ home course in Hobe Sound, Fla. He is matched up with Peyton Manning against Mickelson and Brady.
When Mickelson teased Woods about not winning their previously nationally televised match, Woods cracked a big smile, leapt from his chair, and said “Hold on, I’m a little chilly.” Then he draped the green jacket he earned with his stunning win at the 2019 Masters across his shoulder and upper body like a blanket.
Just like a tiger.
“i’m very happy about the time off,” he said. “The orthopedic spine surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago said I likely have significant arthritis in my back, and that time off can only help these symptoms and the pain.”
Last season, on average, Woods took about 2 1/2 weeks off between tournament appearances. Five times, he waited three or more weeks between competitions. Now he said he was going to sit down with his team and figure out what the best practice schedule is, as in what are the tournaments that he needed to play.
Unfortunately for him, he’s been through episodes like this in his storied career concerning his back, where seconds seem like months. He’s often tried to slow things down and do things at a different pace, but when the links are his second home and only true livelihood, he doesn’t need to continue being wealthy, just physically and healthy and able to play his game. Except for his love of the game that he grew up under the tutelage of his late father who handed him the nickname “Tiger,” he could just pack his golf gear and retire for better or for worse.
With all that he’s worth, it’s better for him to make his own decisions. Presently, he’s just looking to play some more golf.
Yup, just like a tiger, go for the game.