Last April, Tiger Woods shuffled into the Texas Back Institute hoping to finally end his pain. It was four years since he winced and crumpled to his knees during the Fed-Ex Cup play-offs suffering a back spasm; two discectomies and a third operation had failed to remedy his sciatica, which cinched his nerves on a daily basis leaving him slumped on his sofa for days at a time. Spinal fusion surgery was pretty close to a final shot.
The surgeon cut an incision into Woods’ abdomen about the diameter of a golf hole, delved in, eased aside muscles and organs to access the spinal column, and screwed in a bone graft between the L5 and S1 vertebrae. Less than a year later the rejuvenated Woods is preparing to stride on to the first tee at Augusta, chest out, muscles raging, a rippling monument to his own will to win.
To understand Woods’ rediscovered heights, consider the place he sunk to. He is unrecognisable from the bleary-eyed Woods last May so dazed by prescription painkillers he couldn’t walk for police, or the Woods last September who glumly admitted he might never play golf again. After a ninth, fifth and second place finish, he is back in contention, even topping the PGA Tour’s club head speed – impressive for a player in their 40s, unfathomable for someone a year out from surgery on their spine.
“It’s been a tough road,” Woods said this week on his return to Augusta. “The amount of times I’ve fallen because my leg didn’t work or I just had to lay on the ground in pain for extended periods of time. Those are some really dark, dark times. I’m a walking miracle … I don’t know if anyone who’s had a lower back fusion can swing the club as fast as I can swing it. That’s incredible.”
It has been a journey of rehabilitation, in more ways than one. The surgery relieved Woods’ back pain but by then was hooked on painkillers, and had to undergo a 28-day course at a Florida treatment centre following his DUI arrest. Once complete, and under strict instructions from his surgeon not to swing a club for four months, Woods channelled his rapacious work ethic into rebuilding his strength and flexibility, working out through the night in his home gym when he couldn’t sleep.
He rebuilt his physique but also had to relearn his technique. This was the first time his coach Chris Como had worked with Woods free from pain. Como’s biomechanical expertise helped find a swing which took the pressure off the lower back, with a higher backlift, steeper downswing and taller finish which didn’t twist the body. Woods split from Como in December, choosing to go alone, but still consults with him when he feels the need.
“Como created a blueprint for Tiger,” says PGA pro and swing expert Dan Whittaker. “I think he’s got a hybrid swing now, right in between his swing around 2000 and when he first came on tour in ‘97. Long and loose, staying in his posture, arms higher at the top. There’s a lot of muscle memory in his body to those moves, so it isn’t that hard to pull those back to the surface.”
It is hard to know for sure why Woods cut Como. It is hard to know much at all about Woods, really, a man who lives beneath an impenetrable shield of PR, who chases eminence but resents everything that comes with it, who owns two boats and named them Privacy and Solitude. Most likely is that Woods needed a change of mentality, to stop considering the mechanics of his swing before each shot and start remembering what it’s like to look at a golf course and envisage the lines he wanted to draw.
“For the first time in a long while it looks like he’s playing golf, not his golf swing,” explains Whittaker. “It’s not process driven, it’s more outcome based. He thinks ‘I’m going to hit a draw’ and then he feels that shot and plays it. He’s being more creative. Before he became so mechanical, he used to make the outrageous look ordinary. This move [splitting from Como] is probably allowing some of that to come out.”
And there has been another subtle shift. “I think it’s the happiest he’s looked on the golf course for maybe 10 years,” says Whittaker. “All of the other times he kept coming back there was so much negativity. Everybody seems delighted just to have Tiger back. He looks like he’s really missed it, and he really looks happy to be out there. I did a podcast just before this comeback and the talk was ‘Will he make it through 72 holes?’ There was no expectation. Now we’re talking about whether he’s going to win the Masters.”
Perhaps the irony of Wood’s roller coaster 2017 is that in sinking so low, his own expectations have shifted dramatically and he is far happier with his lot. He has returned more relaxed, seemingly no longer at war with his own demons, and free of the fixation over his swing which has at times inhibited his genius.
Of course that desire to win still rages, and there is the sense that Woods’ story needs an ending to neatly clip his soundbite in history. To win a 15th major title and a fifth Green Jacket, 13 years after his fourth, would be both extraordinary and entirely befitting, and would constitute one of the great sporting comebacks – even if Woods is reluctant to make the comparison himself.
“I think that one of the greatest comebacks in all of sport is the gentleman who won here, Mr Hogan,” said Woods this week. “I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships.”
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