TIGER: HOW BAD IS IT?

SIX QUES­TIONS FOR A PLAYER WHO ONCE HAD ALL THE AN­SWERS

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Jaime Diaz

Six ques­tions for a player who once had all the an­swers.

TIGER WOODS ONCE SEEMED IN­VIN­CI­BLE be­fore he be­came the lat­est and per­haps most pow­er­ful proof that no one is. Now, like ev­ery­one else, all Woods has is hope.

Nev­er­the­less,Woods’ fans had a lot of it com­ing into 2017. The 14-time ma­jor cham­pion, who had just turned 41, had re­turned to com­pe­ti­tion after a 15-month ab­sence, and he’d shown the kind of speed and easy rhythm that be­lied the three back pro­ce­dures he had en­dured since March 2014.Woods seemed hope­ful as well, sign­ing up to start the year with an am­bi­tious four tour­na­ments in five weeks. But when he missed the cut in the first one atTor­rey Pines and then with­drew in Dubai, cit­ing back spasms after an open­ing 77, hope gave way to hurt. At the Cham­pi­ons Din­ner be­fore the Mas­ters, which marked his fifth straight missed ma­jor, Woods told Jack Nicklaus about his de­bil­i­tat­ing back pain. Nicklaus im­plored Woods to see his long­time phys­i­cal ther­a­pist, and Woods had one ses­sion with Pete Egoscue, but four days later un­der­went fu­sion surgery on his lower spine. The next ma­jor he can even con­tem­plate play­ing is the 2018 Mas­ters.

All that was de­flat­ing enough, but at 3am on Memo­rial Day (May 29), Florida po­lice found Woods’ car pulled off to the side of a thor­ough­fare near his Jupiter Is­land home, the en­gine run­ning, a blinker on and Woods asleep be­hind the wheel. Woods was ar­rested and booked on DUI.

The en­su­ing mug shot of a di­shev­elled Woods and po­lice videos of his failed field­so­bri­ety test opened him to pub­lic ridicule. The re­ac­tion was rem­i­nis­cent of what Woods en­dured after he crashed his car out­side his home on Thanks­giv­ing 2009 and was later re­vealed to have been hav­ing mul­ti­ple ex­tra-mar­i­tal af­fairs.

This time, Woods’ 2015 Mercedes had dents and two flat tyres on the driver’s side, and he told po­lice he had taken a com­bi­na­tion of pre­scrip­tion drugs, in­clud­ing the painkiller Vi­codin and the seda­tive Xanax. Later, in a state­ment, he said he’d had “an un­ex­pected re­ac­tion to pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tion.” Woods, who ap­peared to fully co-op­er­ate with po­lice, main­tained he had not been drink­ing, which was sup­ported by a .000 read­ing on an In­tox­il­yser test.

The golf world ex­pressed sym­pa­thy and sup­port. “I think that he’s strug­gling, and I wish him well,” Nicklaus said. “I hope he gets out of it, and I hope he plays golf again. He needs a lot of sup­port from a lot of peo­ple. And I’ll be one of them.” Woods was con­trite in a pre­pared state­ment: “I un­der­stand the sever­ity of what I did and take full re­spon­si­bil­ity for my ac­tions. I would like to apol­o­gise with all my heart to my fam­ily, friends and the fans. I ex­pect more from my­self, too. I will do ev­ery­thing in my power to en­sure that this never hap­pens again.” On June 19, one day after the US Open, Woods took to Twit­ter to an­nounce his first move in that di­rec­tion: “I’m cur­rently re­ceiv­ing pro­fes­sional help to man­age my med­i­ca­tions and the ways that I deal with back pain and a sleep dis­or­der. I want to thank ev­ery­one for the amaz­ing out­pour­ing of sup­port and un­der­stand­ing es­pe­cially fans and play­ers on tour.” “I’m not at lib­erty to say where he is, but he is re­ceiv­ing in-pa­tient treat­ment,” Mark Stein­berg, Woods’ agent, told ESPN.com. “Tiger has been deal­ing with so much pain phys­i­cally. And that leads to in­som­nia and sleep is­sues. This has been go­ing on for a long time.” But Woods is a big­ger mystery than ever. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters is the dif­fi­culty in know­ing what to be­lieve. Woods’ stop-start his­tory of state­ments per­tain­ing to in­juries and his os­ten­si­ble re­cov­er­ies has fos­tered a deeply scep­ti­cal wait-and-see at­ti­tude. When, after a 15-month ab­sence from com­pe­ti­tion, he ap­peared to be swing­ing freely last De­cem­ber, Woods told the me­dia, “I’m sit­ting here in front of you guys with a dif­fer­ent re­al­ity be­cause things have im­proved so much.” But the next month he looked bad at Tor­rey Pines and worse in Dubai. Woods at first in­sisted he had been “in no pain at all,” and Stein­berg said the spasms had noth­ing to do with nerve prob­lems.

It ended Woods’ re­turn to com­pe­ti­tion, although he con­tin­ued to un­der­play his con­di­tion. After miss­ing his sec­ond straight Mas­ters, Woods at­tended an an­nounce­ment for a new course on April 18 and said he was hav­ing “good days and bad days.” But he sur­prised ev­ery­one when he un­der­went the fu­sion surgery the next day in Dal­las. “The surgery went well, and I’m op­ti­mistic this will re­lieve my back spasms and pain,” Woods said in his state­ment. “When healed, I look for­ward to get­ting back to a nor­mal life, play­ing with my kids, com­pet­ing in pro­fes­sional golf and liv­ing with­out the pain I have been bat­tling so long.” Added Stein­berg: “This surgery, we hope, elim­i­nates the bad days.”

Five weeks later, Woods said in a post on his web­site that he’d re­quired the surgery be­cause of con­stant pain. “I could no longer live with the pain I had. We tried ev­ery pos­si­ble non-sur­gi­cal route, and noth­ing worked,” he wrote. “I had good days and bad days, but the pain was usu­ally there, and I couldn’t do much. Even ly­ing down hurt. I had nerve pain with any­thing I did and was at the end of my rope.”

The post con­tin­ued: “It has been just over a month since I un­der­went fu­sion surgery on my back, and it is hard to ex­press how much bet­ter I feel. It was instant nerve re­lief. I haven’t felt this good in years . . . . There’s a long way to go, but as I said, words can­not con­vey how good it feels to be pain-free.” Yet four days later, Woods’ in­ges­tion of pain med­i­ca­tion ap­par­ently was the cause of his se­vere im­pair­ment.

Many ques­tions re­main. Here are six.

1 IS TIGER’S BACK SURGERY CAUSE FOR OP­TI­MISM, OR IS IT ANOTHER SET­BACK?

As bad as the term an­te­rior lum­bar in­ter­body fu­sion sounds, and as wince-in­duc­ing as imag­in­ing ver­te­brae be­ing screwed and glued to­gether can be, the fact is that the pro­ce­dure of­ten elim­i­nates what is most de­bil­i­tat­ing for a golfer: nerve pain.

Three ma­jor-cham­pi­onship win­ners who had sim­i­lar pro­ce­dures – Lanny Wad­kins, Lee Trevino and Retief Goosen – all con­sid­ered the surg­eries last re­sorts, but all emerged im­me­di­ately free of nerve

pain and came back to the game with a new ea­ger­ness.

Wad­kins and Trevino had their pro­ce­dures after their reg­u­lar PGA Tour ca­reers (Wad­kins at 58 and Trevino at 64), but Goosen, the 2001 and 2004 US Open win­ner, un­der­went a disc re­place­ment in 2012 at 43.

“At that point, I couldn’t have played golf again with­out the surgery,” says Goosen, whose last vic­tory came in 2009. “It was suc­cess­ful. I have zero back pain. I haven’t lost any range of mo­tion or any speed and don’t have any trou­ble hit­ting the ball. My short game and putting aren’t as good, but that’s un­re­lated to my back.”

Woods also re­ported “instant nerve re­lief.” If that al­lows him, after his lat­est re­hab, to again swing with free­dom and speed, then Wad­kins, Trevino and Goosen all agree he has a good chance to be a win­ner again.

“My pre­dic­tion: He’ll come back in a blaze of glory,” says Trevino, the most bullish of the trio. “He’s not too old – far from it. If he gets fixed, when he comes back to hit­ting and feels no pain, he’s go­ing to be so happy that he might be more dan­ger­ous than he was be­fore.”

2 IF HE WAS PAIN-FREE, WHY WAS HE TAK­ING PAIN MED­I­CA­TION?

Woods main­tained he in­cor­rectly mixed pre­scrip­tion drugs, in this case Vi­codin and Xanax – although only the tox­i­col­ogy re­port can defini­tively con­firm what drugs were in his sys­tem. It re­called Thanks­giv­ing 2009, when his then-wife, Elin, told po­lice that Woods had ac­tive pre­scrip­tions for Vi­codin and Am­bien. He also said he was pain-free. Stein­berg told ESPN.com that there is no con­tra­dic­tion in Woods pro­fess­ing no pain but then need­ing treat­ment to deal with a prob­lem caused by on­go­ing pain.

“I don’t think you can put two and two to­gether,” he said. “It’s such a com­pli­cated state, such a com­pli­cated sit­u­a­tion. If you’re in that much pain for so many years . . . Tiger has been try­ing to fig­ure out how to live a life and ac­tu­ally have a life. He is where he is right now. I’m glad he is tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

It’s un­known whether Woods had an un­re­lated in­jury or mal­ady that prompted him to seek pain re­lief. The play­ers who un­der­went back surgery said that though there was no nerve pain, they were sore for about a week from the in­ci­sions and gen­eral in­va­sive­ness of surgery. Ac­cord­ing to an ac­quain­tance of Woods, shortly be­fore his ar­rest and a month after the surgery, Woods said that he was still feel­ing pain from the in­ci­sion in his mid­sec­tion.

There is an ac­count of Woods tak­ing Vi­codin as far back as 2008, when he was suf­fer­ing from the torn ACL that caused him so much pain at the US Open at Tor­rey Pines. Ac­cord­ing to his coach at the time, Hank Haney, Woods took the drug during that year’s Mas­ters, where he fin­ished sec­ond but putted poorly. Woods came to be­lieve that the Vi­codin had af­fected his touch, and chose not to take it at Tor­rey Pines, sub­sti­tut­ing Motrin or Advil.

In the af­ter­math of Woods’ ar­rest, most ob­servers avoided any sug­ges­tion that Woods could have a drug is­sue. But Paul Azinger was more can­did. “He’s had a lot of back surg­eries, he’s had knee surg­eries, he’s had an Achilles is­sue. He’s had a lot of pain,”

Azinger said. “It would be easy for Tiger to get hooked on that, that very ad­dic­tive drug, if he’s hooked on it. I hope he’s not.”

3 HAS HE MISSED TOO MUCH GOLF?

Woods won five tour­na­ments in 2013, but since then he has been a part-time golfer at best. And since Au­gust 2015, he has played in just three events.

Ex­tended leaves from the com­pet­i­tive game don’t usu­ally work out well, even for the greats. Bobby Jones re­tired in 1930 after win­ning the Grand Slam at 28, but he came back four years later to play in the first Mas­ters as its host. Much was an­tic­i­pated, but Jones no­ticed a jerk in his putting stroke on his sec­ond hole of the first round and “felt that some­thing was rad­i­cally wrong,” wrote Charles Price. On Jones’ fifth hole, now the 14th, the whir of a movie cam­era caused him to stop his back­swing on his tee shot and left him strangely un­set­tled. “He knew at that instant that some­thing had gone out of his game, for­ever,” Price wrote. “It wasn’t that Jones had lost his nerves. But some­thing was keep­ing him from mak­ing his nerves work for him in­stead of against him.”

More re­cently, Trevino has no doubt he re­turned to the game not quite as good after be­ing hit by light­ning in 1975. Azinger lost his edge after cancer and chemo­ther­apy kept him from com­pe­ti­tion for nearly two years. Jose Maria Olaz­a­bal missed all of 1996 with a crip­pling case of rheuma­toid arthri­tis. Though he won the 1999 Mas­ters, the illness and ab­sence de­railed what had been a steady climb to­wards great­ness. Even Ben Ho­gan, who after his near-fa­tal ac­ci­dent in early 1949 won six of the next nine ma­jors he played through 1953, be­lieved he was never again as good as he had been in 1948.

Woods knows he has lost some­thing in terms of speed and power. But it’s al­most the def­i­ni­tion of a great player to be able to make ef­fec­tive com­pen­sa­tions for such in­evitabil­i­ties. What mat­ters is how much Woods has lost – and per­haps can’t re­cover – men­tally. As Nicklaus said, “You don’t know what’s go­ing through some­body’s head when they’ve been in­jured as long as he’s been in­jured.”

4 IS HE TOO OLD TO COME BACK?

Only one golfer since 1900 has won more than one ma­jor past the age of 42: Julius Boros took the 1963 US Open at 43 and the 1968 PGA at 48. Ho­gan won three at 40 in 1953, but no more. Nicklaus won two at 40 and his 18th and last at 46. Harry Var­don was 41 and 44 in win­ning his last two Open Cham­pi­onships. Mark O’Meara won his only two at 41 in 1998.

In Woods’ favour is that elite ath­letes in all sports are stay­ing on top longer. Against him is ex­tra wear and tear – not just from his in­juries, but also from the in­ten­sity with which he has com­peted on the big stage since his mid-teens – that some say aged him as a golfer be­yond his years.

5 HOW WILL A NEW PUB­LIC HU­MIL­I­A­TION HURT TIGER?

Woods, who over the past eight years has sto­ically weath­ered the af­ter­math of per­haps the fastest and most pre­cip­i­tous fall from grace ever in pub­lic life, will have to han­dle another sim­i­lar hit. His chil­dren are now old enough to com­pre­hend what the world is say­ing about their fa­ther. He has surely fur­ther dam­aged his abil­ity as an en­dorser – one whose once-yearly $100 mil­lion-plus off-course earn­ings has dropped to about $35 mil­lion. Can he keep from los­ing what­ever is left of the con­fi­dence and sense of destiny that marked his at­ti­tude in his prime?

Then again, Woods might be in­ured to such feel­ings after hav­ing sur­vived 2009. It’s also pos­si­ble that his charge will be re­duced, pub­lic judg­ment will cool and the ar­rest will fade from view.

In­deed, the in­verse of the re­ac­tion in 2009 – a wide­spread pub­lic aver­sion to pil­ing on some­one who has been through enough – could help Woods ride out the storm. What­ever he feels inside, or as cruel as so­cial me­dia can be, he has been sup­ported by demon­stra­tions of en­cour­age­ment and sym­pa­thy from his gal­leries. He ac­knowl­edged as much after his lat­est surgery, say­ing, “I also want to thank the fans for your phe­nom­e­nal sup­port. It means more than you know.”

All through his dark pe­riod, Woods has learned that when he is able to show even a glim­mer of his for­mer ta­lent, the sports world is cap­ti­vated, and pub­lic sins or em­bar­rass­ments are largely for­got­ten.

6 DOES HE HAVE A REAL SUP­PORT SYS­TEM AMONG OTHER PLAY­ERS?

Much has been made in the past year of a new Tiger, more en­gaged so­cially. In his role as as­sis­tant cap­tain at the Ry­der Cup, he was praised for his gen­eros­ity with knowl­edge. He is also on so­cial me­dia. But in more pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions with sev­eral of his peers, some of whom Woods has called friends, what emerges is the iso­lated fig­ure who is rarely seen – whether at Medal­ist Golf Club or his restau­rant, The Woods Jupiter – and who shares lit­tle and trusts less. A par­tic­u­lar Woods quirk is to text a player who is in con­tention to of­fer en­cour­age­ment and good luck, fol­lowed by a few ex­changes. And then . . . noth­ing.

Older play­ers who have known him for years and feel a golf kin­ship con­fess that they have rarely if ever so­cialised with Woods off the course. Young play­ers – some of whom say he was their in­spi­ra­tion grow­ing up – and who rel­ish the rare op­por­tu­ni­ties to still play with him, don’t feel close to him like they do an older player like Phil Mick­el­son, who has been a much more gre­gar­i­ous men­tor.

What’s left to other play­ers is now a mostly sad glimpse of an icon who, be­yond im­per­sonal jock ban­ter, prefers dis­tance.

“He’s a clas­sic in­tro­vert, but one thrust into me­dia star­dom and the spot­light from early on and was the face of golf,” says Ryan Moore. “Be­ing an in­tro­vert my­self, that’s not easy to han­dle.”

At this point, noth­ing fig­ures to come easy to Woods. He has just made his al­ready dif­fi­cult life harder. Per­haps a ded­i­cated re­turn to golf, which went from his haven to his bur­den, can of­fer a home base for a fresh start.

Of course, even as a golfer, he has far more than ever to do and far less time to do it. As Woods pre­pares to turn 42 in De­cem­ber, an old say­ing ap­plies: Hope is a good break­fast, but it’s a bad sup­per. Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by BRIAN WACKER.

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