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Happell: We will never see Woods compete again

Woods' road back to competition became even steeper with news he's undergone a fourth back surgery.
Only because I don’t have much of a life, I found myself watching last week a YouTube video of Tiger Woods winning the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio.

The video was highlighted at the bottom of an online golf article I’d been reading, so it was purely by chance that I happened upon it and clicked the link.

Of course, a day or two later, the news filtered through from the US that Woods had just undergone another round of back surgery – his fourth – and he would have to spend a minimum of six months out of the game.

Woods did not get the latest operation done by the doctor credited with the first three. According to his website, he entrusted his back this time to a Dr Richard Guyer of the ‘Texas Back Institute’.

Guyer was quoted as saying: "After he recovers from surgery, he will gradually begin his rehabilitation until he is completely healed. Once that's accomplished, his workouts will be geared to allowing him to return to competitive golf.

"If you are going to have single-level fusion, the bottom level is the best place for it to occur ….”A fusion of the vertebrae for a top-level sportsman hoping to compete again? At the age of 41? No matter which way his long-time agent, Mark Steinberg of Excel Sports Management, tried to spin it, this was bleak news indeed. 

We know Woods has not won a major since 2008 – can it really be nine years? – and a regular PGA Tour event since that Bridgestone tournament in Akron, Ohio in August 2013, his 79th tour success. 

But he is now ranked No.788 in the world, his back is aching, his touch has deserted him and his swing is a hotchpotch product of myriad different lessons, and teachers, over the past 10 years. 

Given all that, I think we now have to get used to the fact that we will never see Woods compete again – let alone win, let alone add to his major championship tally of 14.

Former Australian professional now radio SEN’s golf commentator, Mark Allen, said unequivocally on Monday: “I think he’s cooked.”

Allen said, even if Woods did successfully come back from the latest surgery, how much power could he hope to generate with fused discs in his back? How could he possibly hope to compete with Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka and the like each week?

Allen said it would be the rough equivalent of those players being allowed to tee off from the ladies’ tees, while Woods would have to trudge back to the championship markers; the difference in driving distance would be that significant.  

Meanwhile, Jeff Babineau at Golfweek said it was hard to view the latest development as anything but fatal news to Woods' comeback hopes: “But the stark reality is this: Woods knows that every day he is not competing on the PGA Tour is one more milepost farther away. And now he sits six more months away from just starting up again. It’s a brutal cycle. These kids today taking his place at the big events are good, very good, and they’re fearless, mostly because they learned from the best.”

Woods has played just 19 PGA Tour events since his first back operation a week before the 2014 Masters.

At the end of the following season, where he missed the cut in three majors, he chose to have back surgery in September and another one in October.

He then went 15 months without competition before returning in December 2016 at his Hero World Challenge event in the Bahamas, where he made 24 birdies in 72 holes and looked to be swinging unhindered.

But then he missed the cut at Torrey Pines in January, and withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic on February 3 after opening with a 77, citing back spasms.

And now he has gone through a fourth surgery, meaning he has as many back operations to his name as Masters’ green jackets.

Even the most incurable optimist would have to say that the portents are now grim, very grim indeed.

Which got me thinking about that magical August week at Akron in 2013 when the vintage Woods was on show, strutting down the fairway, smiling, fist-pumping, dialling in irons, holing putts from everywhere – and winning by seven shots.

He shot a second-round 61, which featured 11 one-putt greens in the first 13 holes, and ended up coasting home ahead of runners-up Keegan Bradley and Henrik Stenson. It was his 18th WGC event victory.

For most of the golf world, the evidence was clear-cut: Tiger was back. Now the assault on Jack Nicklaus’ record tally of 18 majors could re-commence. 

But for all those at Firestone Country Club that week, and they lined the gallery ropes five and six deep, who among them could seriously have imagined that they’d be witnessing the final hurrah, the curtain call, of perhaps the game’s greatest player?

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