When Barack Obama learned of Tiger Woods’ car crash this week, he took to Twitter: “The GOAT of golf,” wrote the former President. “If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to never count Tiger out.”
But is this really the end of Woods’ golf career?
Certainly, his injuries make for grim reading — multiple fractures to his tibia requiring the insertion of metal rods, broken bones protruding through the skin, and countless screws and pins in his feet and ankles. Factor in five back surgeries (the most recent in December 2020) and ongoing issues with his left knee, and it’s difficult to see how his road to recovery is going to be anything other than long and arduous, as Jonathan Gelber, orthopaedic surgeon and author of “Tiger Woods’s Back and Tommy John’s Elbow: Injuries & Tragedies That Transformed Careers, Sports and Society,” explains.
“Tiger will likely get back to his daily activities but playing sports, especially at a high level is another thing,” he says. “His bones can heal anywhere from 8-12 weeks, but it often takes a year at least to get a high-level athlete back to full performance.”
But Woods can take inspiration from the late Ben Hogan, the nine-time major winner, who also suffered a life-threatening car crash in the early morning of Feb. 2, 1949.
Hogan had been driving home to Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife Valerie, having just lost in a playoff at the Phoenix Open. In dense fog, he was crawling along Highway 80 east of El Paso, Texas, in his new Cadillac sedan when he was hit, head on, by a Greyhound bus coming the other way. With a collision unavoidable, Hogan had thrown himself over Valerie in the passenger seat, saving her from certain death.
But Hogan paid the price, suffering a double-fracture of the pelvis, a broken ankle, a fractured collar bone, chipped ribs, deep cuts and contusions around his left eye and near fatal blood clots.
Initially, news wires reported Hogan had died — which, given what little was left of his car, was hardly surprising.
Then doctors said he might not walk again, yet alone play golf.
Hogan spent 59 days in the hospital in El Paso before getting a train back to Fort Worth to begin rehabilitation. Within nine months, during which he all but learned to walk again, he was back on the golf course.
Within 16 months, he was U.S. Open champion again, prompting an astonishing run of success culminating in 1953, when he won the Triple Crown of the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.
“Finally, I got to where I could play a little bit,” Hogan told CBS in 1983. “Not as good as I could before. … I was better in 1948 and ’49 than I’ve ever been.”
Success on the course masked problems off it, both physically and psychologically. Though Hogan never really got over his injuries — his legs routinely swelled up — the idea that he wasn’t the same player he once was, even though results suggested otherwise, plagued him.
“Ben was cheated out of years of golf by the accident,” Valerie said in 1999, soon after Hogan’s death. “As he got older, there was a sense of loss. There was sadness.”
Can Woods emulate Ben Hogan? He certainly has the character all great champions need — witness his comeback win at the Masters in 2019 — but there’s a crucial difference between the two.
Hogan was just 36 years old when he had his crash, and Woods is now 45. As Gelber explains, that will be important.
“Nearly 10 years difference is a huge variable even in healthy athletes let alone those recovering from high-energy trauma,” he says. “So Tiger’s age and previous injuries will be a major factor. He’ll likely get back to his daily activities but playing sports, especially at a high level, is another thing.”
So is Woods’ body up to it? Gelber isn’t so sure.
“He has already likely lost motion in his back from his spinal fusion operations,” he says. “It’s like a catapult. The farther you pull it back, the more energy is created for launch. The same is true with a golf swing. Every degree counts.”
Forty-five years old may be getting on in pro golf, but Woods is young enough for his fractures to heal successfully, depending on the location of the break. An isolated shaft fracture can be treated with a rod, allowing for immediate weight-bearing, but if it involves the joint, and reports suggest it might, Woods could find himself off his feet for 6-8 weeks, possibly more.
Rehabilitation will be key. Typically, it involves four phases — the first of which will be reducing any pain and swelling and improving the range of motion while the injuries heal. Once the bones have healed, Woods will begin strengthening the muscles and bones in his legs before moving on to more complex movements designed to improve mobility. Finally, he will begin work on more sports specific exercises.
“Each stage can take weeks or months depending on the type of surgery and the person,” Gelber says. “To restore motion, strength, and coordination could easily take at least a year.”
Time will tell, but if Hogan’s miraculous recovery can provide inspiration — and by 1953 he was a national hero, enjoying ticker-tape parades on Broadway — then Woods might see some light at the end of this latest tunnel.
Certainly, Gelber wouldn’t bet against another comeback.
“When I was editing the last draft of my book, Tiger was ranked 100 in the world,” he says. “Then he won the Masters, so I had to change the ending.
“I know more than anyone how much he can surprise you.
“You can never count Tiger out.”