Tiger Woods underwent a microdiscectomy procedure to remove a pressurized disc fragment in his back that he said on Tuesday was creating discomfort after he played the event in Florida with his son, Charlie. Woods completed the procedure following the PNC Championship in December 2020 and is now out of action indefinitely.
The surgery, which is the fifth on Tiger’s back throughout his career, will keep Woods from playing the Farmers Insurance Open and Genesis Invitational (an event he hosts) early this year.
There is no timetable for his return as the 45-year-old Woods remains stuck on 82 PGA Tour wins, which is tied with Sam Snead for most all time.
“I look forward to begin training and am focused on getting back out on Tour,” Woods said in a statement.
The Masters, where Woods has won five times including in 2019, starts in just 11 weeks.
Woods is coming off one of the more mediocre seasons of his career as he notched just one top 10 worldwide in 2020, missed the cut at the U.S. Open and was a nonfactor at the other two major championships.
He missed a good chunk of the season early in the year with back stiffness. That was before the sport was shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Woods did not play between the Genesis Invitational in February and the Memorial Tournament in July. He also missed events he normally plays each year, such as the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship.
Though the timing of it is surprising, this is not necessarily unexpected news concerning the arc of Woods’ career. After Woods had his massive spinal fusion surgery in 2017, it bought him some time, but probably not as much as many people thought. Here’s the New York Times from May 2019.
“If you were one of Woods’s competitors, you might say, ‘I might wait a little bit,'” said Dr. Steven Atlas, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard.
Dr. Atlas said he tells patients that it is one thing for an athlete like Woods to have that operation — it may be risky but he also might get a few more years out of his playing career, which could be worth millions of dollars.
But he cautions typical middle-aged patients. “Once they have that fusion, it can’t be undone,” Dr. Atlas said. “And it is likely that they will have future surgery down the road,” as a consequence of the instability fusion causes.
“If your goal is cure, that isn’t what this is going to offer,” he said.
Tiger took advantage of the time he bought from 2018-20 by winning three times (including the Masters!). He ascended the mountain again, and now the cost of that surgery is starting to creep back in. The cost was already high as rehabilitation and physical therapy were no doubt incredibly painful, but the future cost was unknown … until now.
And while the nature of this most recent surgery seems relatively minor compared to the spinal fusion, questions remain. One, when will he return, and what kind of shape will he be in when he does given that he’ll be 46 this calendar year? Two, his game was already pretty mediocre in 2020 with (apparently) decent health, so where will it be at after this? Three, how many more surgeries will there be in the future?
Frame this the right way, and the takeaway should probably be that Tiger’s 2019 Masters win was the greatest achievement in sports history. As he faded through the rest of that year, it became clear that his green jacket may have been one last assault on the record books. Maybe that’s not how it will play out, but maybe it should be. That win was astonishing and an opportunity to pay tribute to the best who’s ever done it.
The price for Woods has become so high just to be comfortable, much less to compete against the Rory McIlroys and Dustin Johnsons of the world. Hopefully he returns with fervor and as much game as he did for that stretch at the end of 2018 and 2019, but the expectation now, at age 45 after five back surgeries and the threat of more in the future, should probably be that he will not.