Tiger Woods completed one of sport's greatest comebacks - can he do it again?

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James Corrigan
·12 min read
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Collage of Tiger Woods images
Collage of Tiger Woods images

The challenge ahead

Horror, relief, concern… Tiger Woods always has made the observers scramble across the emotions, but even by his standards the 24 hours from Feb 23, 2021 caused the nerves to experience a new level of freneticism.

When the world of golf awoke on the morning after the fright before, that sense of intense relief that the 45-year-old’s life is not in danger was, naturally, still present. But after the worst fears were allayed by the LA Sheriff’s Department - and that the baffling single-car crash he sustained caused frightful damage, but blessedly not gruesome enough to threaten his existence as a father-of-two - attention inevitably turned to what is next for the sport’s icon.

Tiger Woods crash
Tiger Woods crash


Perhaps it is selfish for golf to thrust itself so quickly into the speculation game and perhaps it should leave the conjecture until Woods is back home in South Florida in the bosom of his family. Yet because of the 15-time major-winner’s importance to the fairways and because of his history of launching implausible, if not supposedly impossible, revivals, the question is impossible to ignore.

Can he possibly do it again, can he once more raise himself from a wreckage and reclaim the major stage? “If anyone can, then it’s Tiger,” Bryson DeChambeau said. “After all, he’s done it before.”

Of course, it will be the scans and the consultations that will ultimately decide if he is physically able to come back this time, just like he did spectacularly at the 2019 Masters after that 11-year hiatus. The rods, screws and pins in the lower right leg, to stabilise both the tibia and fibula bones and piece together, like a jigsaw, a shattered ankle, will inevitably lead to a lengthy rehab regardless of any career decision to be taken.

And it should also be remembered that Woods is waiting on a MRI to check if a fifth back operation in December was successful. If his fragile spine was severely affected in his long and mystifying tumble across that LA freeway, then the lights could be out with the barest of analysis. In truth, there was doubt surrounding his future anyway, albeit focused on his participation or otherwise in April’s Masters.

That has obviously intensified and now stretches past Augusta all the way to forever. As his four-by-four rolled over and over into a tree in that revine, so Woods has hit the bottom of the mountain again with an almighty collision and when he has conquered the shock and when is presented with the full detail and the options, he must peer up and consider if he is up to scaling to the summit once more.

Gracious and understandable retirement or dramatic and thrilling resurrection? It is a conundrum already obsessing a profession that Woods has bestrode like no other before.

The medical hurdles

Mr Nick Cullen
Consultant foot and ankle specialist at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Trust

“It’s a very serious injury of the lower leg. And it’s serious because the bone’s been broken in multiple levels and the bone has broken through the skin.

“It sounds as though the break has gone into the ankle, so it affects the joints of the ankle as well. And once you start having fractures and breaks of bones in the foot then there are lots and lots of joints that can get affected.

“With a segmental break that’s broken through the skin on multiple levels, this would probably be classified as a limb-threatening injury. I don’t think you’d be talking about amputating this immediately but that’s the potential.

“In order for him to make a full recovery to play golf again, he’d need to regain a near-normal range of movement in his ankle and in his foot and he would need his bones to heal up. Very often, after the breaks of the bones here, even if the bones heal up well, there’s quite a lot of damage to the muscles and the tissues.

“I would say that he has certainly a less than 50 percent chance of coming back and being able to play professional golf again.

“The injuries certainly could be life-changing. The risks are stiffness and pain and, in the long-term, when you have nasty injuries like this, you can develop arthritic change within the joints around the ankle and the foot as well. With top athletes like this who are systemically very fit and well, that would be in his favour that he’s more likely to be able to heal up his bones. And with the rehabilitation that he’ll undoubtedly get, that will optimise his movements and reduce any stiffness.

“When you have a rod that’s passed through the shin, you actually get up walking quite quickly afterwards because it stabilises the bone and you’re encouraged to walk. But, with the foot injuries, you’re often encouraged to keep off the foot. So, because of that, it’ll probably be six to 12 weeks before he’s able to put weight through the limb. Then with regards to full bone healing of the shin, the tibial bone, then you’d be looking at between six and 12 months.”

“The swing is based around pivoting and a large proportion of where you pivot around is your hind foot and the joints below the ankle. You generate big force through these joints and also you need a lot of flexibility in order to pivot your body around one way and then swing around your ankles and feet to hit through the ball.

“There are people who have problems of the ankle and feet who can’t play golf. You can compensate and use your shoulders but there’s certainly the potential for it to have a large impact on his ability to play golf to the level he’s been at.”

The coach's view

Pete Cowen has known Tiger Woods since he first stormed on to the Tour 25 years ago and as one of the game’s premier coaches, he has a unique twist on the standard “if anyone can do it…” response.

“If anyone can adapt to an injury it is Tiger and if there is anyone who can fashion a swing to what his body will allow it is Tiger,” the Yorkshireman told The Telegraph on Wednesday.

Cowen believes “at the very least it will be a year until we see Tiger, if we ever do”. But the nature of the injury means he does hold out hope. “If it was the left ankle I would say no chance, as you have to move around that quite violently,” Cowen said.

“And while the right leg can be a power source, you can actually play golf without loading the right leg. There are plenty of pros that stay left-sided and just use the right leg as a post. At his best, Tiger was a little more left-sided, but that was still a violent action back then and if this does restrict him, this would take a complete overhaul of his swing.

“But the thing is it’s not just the swing, it’s walking five miles on a golf course, up hill and down dale. That’s what Ben Hogan found most difficult when he came back from his car crash. The same will probably apply to Tiger. But like I said, he could figure it out, because no player understands his body better and no player understands the swing better. You know, it could be the final challenge. And Tiger likes a challenge.”


The sportsman

AP McCoy Record 20-time jump racing Champion jockey

I was lucky enough to play golf with Tiger once in 2010 and he was a really nice man. Everyone's first reaction on Tuesday was to hope he was ok, and fortunately it looks like he is.

Being injured is horrible because it prevents you from doing the thing you love and mentally it is hard to accept that there is nothing you can do about it. Tiger will know from his previous comebacks that the first two weeks of rehabilitation are the toughest, when you sit around passively waiting for the all-important healing to take place.

Sick as it sounds though, there is a kind of pleasure in pushing yourself through the pain barrier to come back better and faster than the experts say you can. No disrespect to ordinary people, but elite athletes like Tiger have a different mindset.

I broke my back on January 12 2008 after a fall on Arnold Layne at Warwick. I had two plates and four screws put in either side of my spine but was back riding the Saturday before Cheltenham, which was March 9 or 10. I must have had around 1,000 falls in my career and people tell me I was unlucky with injuries. I answer that in fact, I was lucky because I was always able to ride again.

Unlike Tiger, I knew it was part of my job. Two ambulances followed me round at work every day, and the reality was at some stage I was going in one of them because I rode more than anyone else and therefore was injured more often.

I actually got better at coping as I got older. My pain threshold was completely different when I started. I broke my leg, a tib-fib compound fracture, when I was 17 and thought I was going to die!

With his back injuries, so many components have to come together for Tiger to return but you never say never with people like him.

The generation inspired by Woods

Rory McIlroy (World No8 and four-time major winner):

"He's not Superman, he's a human being at the end of the day and he's already been through so much so at this stage everyone should just be grateful that he's here, he's alive, that his kids haven't lost their dad. That's the most important thing. Golf is so far from the equation right now. It's not even on the map at this point."

Dustin Johnson (World No1):

"Hate to see the news about Tiger. Wishing him a quick recovery and a Ben Hogan-style comeback. If anyone can do it, it's TW."

Justin Thomas (World No3):

“I'm sick to my stomach. You know, it hurts to see one of your closest friends get in an accident. Man, I just hope he's all right. Just worry for his kids. I'm sure they're struggling.”

Adam Scott, (World No22):

“It’s sickening. He’s our hero out here. You think guys like Tiger and Kobe Bryant are untouchable, but they’re not. I just hope he’s all right.”

Justin Rose (World No35):

“Just seen the awful news. We know how tough you are, we’ve seen it a hundred times. Hoping and praying you’re ok my friend.

Jack Nicklaus (18-time major winner):

“Please join us in wishing Tiger a successful surgery and all the best for a full recovery.”

Phil Mickelson (five-time major winner):

"We are all pulling for you, Tiger. We are so sorry that you and your family are going through this tough time. Everyone hopes and prays for your full and speedy recovery."

Tony Finau (World No13):

"When I saw the condition of his car, for me, I just hoped that he's OK, that's the biggest reaction really. Also a little bit of shock because we had something crazy happen in our sports world last year with Kobe (Bryant). I wouldn't say that dramatic of feelings, but you just hope Tiger is all right."


Will he want to?

With medical experts predicting it could take anywhere from nine months to two years for Woods to recover, this will plainly be as much a mental quandary for the golfer to solve as it will be a physical challenge.

It is all very well for his fellow players, his friends and even his agent to say that the 45-year-old will undoubtedly have the hunger for the fightback, but at this present time as he lies in that LA hospital bed, blessedly “awake and responsive”, even he will not know if he possesses the wherewithal. There are so many aspects from him to consider in the weeks and months ahead.

Firstly, there must be a temptation to hang up his spikes purely because of where he is in life. Financially, he obviously has no need to fret - although never underestimate Team Tiger’s love of a buck - and after all the turmoil of the last decade his private life seems more settled than ever.

It is easy to envisage the scenario when Woods might say to himself: “You know what? My kids are young and they're all what really matters. I don't need to push myself to excel in a physically demanding sport anymore.” Charlie and Sam were there at Augusta in 2019 to witness their father retracing his major steps and that was incredibly important for Woods. Could it possibly mean as much to the family again?

One thing is certain: Woods has never been afraid of hard work and as Pete Cowen, the acclaimed coach, pointed out, the challenge of remodelling his swing could appeal to this most cerebral of golfers.

While his chase to catch Jack Nicklaus’ record medal haul of 18 is invariably overstated - it was not a target he set himself in his childhood ambition - he would not like to give up without a fight. So much of another unlikely rebirth will fascinate the ultimate competitor.

But so much will be deeply unappealing to this most guarded of superstars. Goodness knows what will come out in the forthcoming weeks, but it must be noted that he has suffered.