News & Opinion

Wadkins, Trevino know Woods’ challenge 

Two hall-of-fame players will be eyeing the results from Torrey Pines this week for more than just the obvious reasons.

Sure, former world No. 1 Tiger Woods is staging his latest comeback on a venue where he has won eight times as a pro, but for Lanny Wadkins and Lee Trevino, there is a commonality regarding their many sutures and futures, too.

After all, the trio come from exactly the same place.

All three have undergone at least one major back operation, and their biggest procedures took place at the same surgical facility in Dallas, Wadkins said. So, when Wadkins and Trevino say, “been there, done that” with regard to corrective surgery on their spines, they aren’t exaggerating.

Wadkins has had so many back surgeries – six in all – that he tosses around terminology and jargon like a doctor. One of the procedures was identical to the surgery undertaken by Woods in April, a fusion of the L5 and S1 vertebrae, which are located in the lowest region of the spine, immediately above the pelvic region.

While millions, likely including Trevino, will watch the Farmers Insurance Open (tee times: http://bit.ly/2n4DNDq) to see whether Woods has any air left under his once-considerable wings at age 42, Wadkins instead is wondering just how high Woods ultimately might fly.

“Tiger can play if he wants to do the work to make it back,” Wadkins said a few days after watching Woods’ surprisingly athletic rounds last month in the 18-man Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. “I think he can play as good as ever, and his swing looks great right now.”

Indeed, to the amazement of many, Woods routinely unleashed swing speeds in the Bahamas that compared with the quickest on the PGA Tour, prompting many pundits to reconsider the career obituaries that they had written only a few months earlier. 

Will crow be in short supply in media cafeterias around the world? Perhaps. Trevino didn’t have fusion surgery like his two compatriots, but instead had spacers surgically placed between damaged disks, a complex procedure in itself. In his mind, there is still some uncertainty regarding Woods’ comeback.

“There are not many mountains in the Bahamas, so it was flat where he played,” Trevino said. “So, when he gets to a golf course that is extremely hilly and he’s got a lot of uphill and/or sideways lies, we will see if his back holds up.”

Among his surgeries, Wadkins also underwent the fusion of his L4 and L5 vertebrae, located just above where Woods had his latest procedure. That’s a more difficult location for a golfer than the spot where Woods was remedied.

“The lower [the surgical spot] is, the less torque it’s going to put on the fusion, because it’s way down at his butt crack,” Wadkins said. “That’s where he had it done. It’s that low, so he’s not going to have the stiffness.”

That isn’t to say there aren’t potential pitfalls. Wadkins eventually needed cleanup surgery on the disk directly above his fused areas, because of the added strain. He damaged the disk while pulling a suitcase out of a car, a relatively benign everyday task.

“That’s always the real worry, that you will have an issue above the fusion, and I did,” Wadkins said.

The day when Woods announced the surgery last spring, his surgeon at the Texas Back Institute said the location of the procedure represented a best-case scenario for a seriously injured patient.

"If you are going to have single-level fusion, the bottom level is the best place for it to occur," Dr. Richard Guyer said.

That said, the list of golfers who have had spinal fusion of any sort and returned to compete at the highest level can be counted on zero hands.

“There are very few people who come back from real back injuries,” Trevino said. “I came back from it because it was the senior tour and not the regular tour. I didn’t play 7,400-yard golf courses, as we played bump-and-run stuff. You can play hurt that way.

“Tiger has got to hit the high ball; he has to hit the long ball. There is a lot of stuff he has to do. Whether his back will hold up, I don’t know.”

Wadkins said Woods likely can play as often as he wants, but might want to consider the amount of time he spends on the practice range. Of course, given the rust that likely has accrued over three injury-plagued seasons, Woods needs to hit as many balls as possible.

“The time on the range, he may want to count balls – don’t go hit a thousand, but maybe stop at 300 balls each day,” Wadkins said. “Work on specific things.”

Woods was feeling so good in the warm weather in the Bahamas that he actually was able to hit practice balls after his rounds. He mostly had skipped that exercise for years as the minor surgeries failed to solve his lingering, nagging back issues that became so severe, they eventually led to a painkiller addiction.

While contemporary players such as Dudley Hart and Retief Goosen came back to play after serious back surgeries, neither remotely approached his previous level of excellence. Hart twice had the same surgery as Woods, after the first iteration failed.

That said, Woods for years has taken any slight, be it real or perceived, as a personal challenge or affront. For two decades as a professional, he habitually has made career-defining firsts seem almost commonplace. 

In other words, for those expressing doubts about his ability to pull off his biggest comeback yet, they’d best be speaking in whispers.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling