Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods is out of next week’s first major of the season after undergoing surgery on a disc in his back.
And he could be off the course for weeks or even months.
Woods’ website announced Tuesday that he had “undergone a successful microdiscectomy for a pinched nerve that has been hurting him for several months.”
The surgery was performed in Park City, Utah, by Dr. Charles Rich, a neurosurgeon.
Woods will require rest and rehabilitation for the next several weeks, putting in doubt whether he will defend his title May 8-11 at The Players Championship at TPC-Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra or be able to play in the U.S. Open, which is June 12-15 in Pinehurst, N.C.
“On average, elite athletes are back on the field in three to four months,” said Dr. Andrew Hecht, Chief of Spine Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Of those, 90 percent can ultimately return to their previous level of competition.
“How long it will take for him to get back to No. 1 in the world, no one can answer,” Hecht added. “It could be a few months more.”
Woods has played in the Masters every year since first appearing as an amateur in 1995. He exploded onto the golf scene with his first major win there in 1997 and also won in 2001, ‘02 and ‘05. It is the only major he has never missed since his first.
Woods, 38, struggled with what was termed back spasms at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, withdrawing after playing 13 holes of his final round March 2. He then addressed the issue at a news conference before the WGC-Cadillac Championship three days later.
“It’s the nature of repetitive sport,” he said. “Some guys do it a thousand times a day, but it’s the same exact motion. So you have repetitive injuries and most of my injuries are that.
“So that’s … why we lift, why we work out, is to try to prevent a lot of these things and keep us healthy and keep us out here.
“As we get older — and I’ve learned it as I’ve aged — I don’t quite heal as fast as I used to. I just don’t bounce back like I used to. That’s just part of aging.”
Woods, who has remained No. 1 in the world despite his difficulties, was clearly in pain that week at Doral, saying afterward that he hoped that having two weeks prior to his next event would be sufficient time to be healthy again for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It wasn’t, and Woods withdrew from that event — where he was two-time defending champion — on March 18, two days before it began.
At that time he expressed hope he would be ready for the Masters. His agent, Mark Steinberg, told The Palm Beach Post on Monday that his Masters status would be clarified “very, very shortly.”
Earlier in the same interview, Steinberg made it clear that Woods plans to remain competitive for years to come.
“I don’t think Tiger is anywhere near interested in handing off the mantle,” Steinberg said. “He has every intention of being dominant the next several years.”
Golf Channel analyst Notah Begay, a former college teammate of Woods’ at Stanford who was forced to retire from the PGA Tour two years ago because o his own back issues, said on air that he had spoken to Woods about his situation.
“Back pain just kind of escalates, and the nerves get agitated, and as the spine is rotating, rep after rep and week after week, it eventually gets to the point where it begins to develop compensations in the swing.
“Getting rid of the pain and getting the back strong, which I am 100 percent confident he is going to be able to do, is of the utmost importance right now.”
A microdiscectomy is a procedure in which an incision from 1 to 1 1/2 inches long is made in the lower back and the problematic disc, which Heck described as a “shock-absorbing cushion” between the vertebrae is addressed.
“Think of the disc as a doughnut with jelly inside and a tough outside, and herniation is where the jelly comes out of the doughnut. When it comes out, it pushes on the nerve, which results in back, buttock or leg pain.”
He added, “Golf involves a lot of twisting and turning. The often overlooked part is golfers have a lot of back problems.”
Hecht added that patients typically attempt to address the issue via physical therapy before opting for surgery. Woods clearly became frustrated after trying that avenue for the past month.
“I’d like to express my disappointment to the Augusta National membership, staff, volunteers and patrons that I will not be at the Masters,” Woods wrote on his website. “It’s a week that’s very special to me. It also looks like I’ll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments to focus on my rehabilitation and getting healthy.”
Woods finally referenced Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus, whose records for PGA Tour wins (82) and majors (18) remain goals.
“It’s tough right now, but I’m absolutely optimistic about the future,” said Woods, who has 79 tour victories and 14 majors. “There are a couple (of) records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I’ve said many times, Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.”