In the wake of last week’s stunning Masters victory by Tiger Woods, a full 14 years after his previous triumph there and 11 years after his last major victory, the spinal fusion he underwent is receiving a large portion of the credit.
However, not so fast my friends.
That surgery was performed two years ago — April 20, 2017.
The rehabilitation road since has been long and hard, marked by as many downs as ups. As recently as March 4, when he withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational with neck pain, Woods making a completely successful comeback was far from certain.
That is the most sure thing about back surgery, the uncertainty of its success. So warns Community Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Wayel Kaakaji.
“The results are unpredictable,” he said. “For that reason, surgery is the last resort and when considering back surgery, always get a second opinion. Educate yourself as much as you can.”
Woods is every bit as much an example of back surgery’s shortcomings as he is of its benefits.
The procedure he underwent two years ago was his fourth back surgery.
His first was on March 31, 2014. Earlier that month he withdrew from the Honda Classic with back spasms and then he played the final 12 holes with pain in his lower back at the Cadillac Championship en route to shooting a 78, the highest score of his career in a final round. He returned three months later at the Quicken Loans National but would not make the cut. Poor finishes, missed cuts and withdrawals marked the remainder of his appearances that year.
In 2015, back pain continued to impair Woods’ performance during a winless season. In September, he had his second lumbar micro-discectomy, only to require a third procedure a month later.
In 2016, he sat out the entire PGA season.
Still suffering from low back pain that radiated into one of his legs, Woods lasted only one round at the Dubai Desert Classic in February 2017, an outcome that prompted surgery number four. More than six months later, he would return and finish in the middle of the pack at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
Last year, he managed 18 tournaments, winning one and finishing second in one major, the PGA, paving the way for last week’s heroics.
At age 43, though, can Tiger make it last?
Kaakaji pointed to Peyton Manning, in addition to Woods, as professional stars with unlimited financial resources who were able to “buy” whatever surgery they wanted but still ended up with mixed outcomes, at best. Manning’s spinal woes — in the neck instead of the low back — drove him out of football.
One reason Woods has been able to continue, as opposed to Manning, who also happens to be 43, is that Woods has no worries of a larger opponent running into him at full speed.
The physical nature of football certainly contributed to the decision of Bears tight end Zach Miller to retire last week. Nine surgeries to his left knee since dislocating the joint in October 2017 were not enough to allow Miller to jog without pain. Consequently, at age 34, his playing career is over. No surprise given that only 50 percent of those who suffer a dislocated knee — not a dislocated kneecap — are ever able to return.
Credit the Bears for re-signing him for the 2018 season, even though there was no chance that he would play so soon. That allowed him to use the Bears’ facilities for his rehabilitation for the last 18 months.
I wondered why the White Sox did not do the same for Danny Farquhar after his collapse with a ruptured brain aneurysm on April 20, 2018. However, a story published over the weekend by ESPN revealed that Farquhar signed a minor league contract with the Yankees because he and his wife preferred to get a fresh start elsewhere instead of returning to where he had nearly lost his life.
The lifesaving surgery, performed at Rush University Medical Center by neurosurgeon Dr. Demetrius Lopes, who is now with Community Hospital, was the only resort but also involved an uncertain outcome. In this case, though, the outcome could not have been any better.