AUGUSTA, Ga. — Bryson DeChambeau, a rising star on the PGA Tour, never imagined he would withdraw from a tournament just to avoid pain.
DeChambeau, 24, grew up admiring Tiger Woods, who had brought a football mentality to the sport, his toughness immortalized by his victory at the 2008 United States Open despite a left leg in need of surgery.
But after DeChambeau winced through the first round of last month’s Valspar Championship, he wasn’t thinking of the Tiger Woods he had always wanted to become. Instead DeChambeau remembered what Woods had said during a practice round they had played together at Torrey Pines in January, nine months after Woods’s fourth lower-back operation since April 2014. He thought about Woods’s frank accounts of the pain he had endured, how it had kept him from the game he loves and had compromised his quality of life with his two children.
After consulting with his caddie and coach, DeChambeau pulled out of the tournament and didn’t touch a club for the next three days. “The first time I’ve done that in my entire life,” he said.
Once again — though in a most unexpected way — Woods had served as a model for the next generation of golfers.
It was here at Augusta National that he became the sport’s transformative figure at 21, half his lifetime ago. From that moment in 1997 when he slipped the winner’s green jacket over his willowy frame after a staggering 12-stroke victory, Woods was the high-performance engine that drove golf forward financially, demographically and, possibly to his eventual detriment, athletically.
This week, Woods acknowledged his history of coming back too soon from surgeries.
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” said Woods, who noted the pattern. He had knee surgery in December 2002 and won the first tournament he played less than two months later. He had his first back surgery in 2014 and played two competitive rounds less than two months later. He had two more back operations in the fall of 2015 and, 14 months after the second one, he returned for the event in the Bahamas that he hosts.
“We’re pushing the boundaries of our bodies and minds and, unfortunately, a lot of times we go over the edge and we break down,” Woods said. “But thank God there’s modern science to fix us and put us back together again.”
[READ MORE: Players to Watch at the Masters]
No one can know for sure whether Woods overdid his training, which began when he was 2 years old, but his vulnerability and medical odyssey over the last few years have made a case for restraint, for appreciating the longer potential career arc that differentiates golf from other professional sports like football.
After winning 79 tour titles in his first 18 years as a pro, Woods has not had a victory since August 2013. His last major title came in 2008. He has spent much of the last three and a half years struggling to make the cut or recovering from surgery.
Woods is still lean, fit and powerful, as measurements of his club-head speed attest, yet the supple 21-year-old Masters champion has given way to a brittle 42-year-old locked in battle with an undefeated opponent: time. “Is anybody in here who is in their 40s ever going to feel like they did in their 20s?” Woods asked a roomful of reporters last fall, before he began what figures to be a proud champion’s last stand.
Woods’s decision last spring to have spinal fusion surgery, which he called “a last resort” after three less complex operations, seems to have restored him, at least for the moment. “I got a second chance on life,” Woods said on his website last week. “I am a walking miracle.”
After everything Woods has put his body through, it’s reasonable to wonder if, in retrospect, he wishes he had done anything differently. But regret is not in Woods’s repertoire, as he demonstrated when I addressed that direct question to him. He answered as if he had followed the only path that was clear to him.
“As an athlete, we’re always pushing ourselves,” he said. “The best ones push themselves beyond human limits. And that’s what separates them. They go through pain; they go through different things that most people are unwilling to do.”
He mentioned the toughness of two Hall of Fame athletes, the basketball player Michael Jordan and the hockey player Wayne Gretzky, who told me later that he played in the 1993 Stanley Cup finals with a broken rib that he had never publicly disclosed.
“I happen to be one of those guys,” Woods said. “I pushed my body and pushed my mind to accomplish the things that I knew I could, and I was able to do it.”
‘I Can Outrun Them’
Davis Love III, the son of a teaching pro, grew up in the company of elite players. But he did a double take when he glanced out the car window on a ride from the suburban course to the team hotel in downtown Boston during the 1999 Ryder Cup. Jogging on the side of the road toward the city was a 23-year-old Woods, the youngest United States team member by four years.
At the hotel, Love said, he asked Woods: Why run? Why not rest?
“I have to run,” he recalled Woods saying. Love persisted: “Everybody in Brookline knows you’re here. Can’t you just run on a treadmill?”
Woods replied, “I can outrun them.”
In his 20s, Woods obsessively ran about 30 miles a week. His motivation, he said, was to improve his endurance, but he also found the rhythmic footfalls calming. “I just find it peaceful,” he said in a 2007 interview with Men’s Fitness.
Woods also lifted heavy weights, an activity players before him had avoided in the belief that big muscles would restrict flexibility and impede their swings. Woods made it his mission to change the perception that golfers were not real athletes.
With his collared shirts barely containing his muscles, Woods routinely clobbered courses — and the competition. His athleticism and dominance increased golf’s appeal to younger players like Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, who were proficient at multiple sports.
“Tiger’s is the last generation that went through high school and got laughed at for playing golf,” said Arron Oberholser, a Golf Channel analyst who played for San Jose State against Stanford when Woods was there.
The work that Woods put in to make golf look cool and effortless was on display even before he entered high school. The summer before his freshman year, he was at the Navy Golf Course near his Cypress, Calif., home from sunup till sundown. He would hit a bucket of balls for every club in his bag and then play the course.
As a freshman, Woods was always the first player on the practice range, which rubbed off on his older teammates, who had been more inclined to dig into a basket of fries than a bucket of range balls.
“He changed high school golf,” said Don Crosby, who coached Woods at Western in Anaheim, Calif. He added, “When the other kids saw him out on the range hitting balls, they stopped going to the snack bar.”
Woods began chiseling his body — and golf’s image — soon after he arrived at Stanford. The authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, in their new unauthorized biography “Tiger Woods,” wrote that the freshman Woods obtained his own key to the weight room from the football coach, Bill Walsh, who had guided the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles.
The key was his golden ticket, allowing him to lift whenever he wanted. Once Woods turned pro, it wasn’t long before he filled out the sweaters that once hung loosely on him.
In 2005, Luke List was an amateur playing at the United States Open in Pinehurst, N.C. One morning in the weight room of the hotel where he was staying, List stumbled upon Woods running on a treadmill.
“He was in there for an hour and a half, and he was doing some pretty impressive lifting,” List recalled, adding, “I ended up spending longer watching what he was doing than working out.”
As Woods is well aware, the game can strain bodies all by itself. He has been swinging a club since he was a toddler and competing in tournaments since he was 4 years old.
“We put a lot of shearing on our spines, a lot of rotation,” Woods said of golfers in general. “On top of that, we hit hundreds of thousands of shots and so it’s the cumulative effect. And I’ve been playing tournament golf for 38 years, so it’s a lot of shearing.”
Brandt Snedeker, an eight-time tour winner, has noticed that after all those years of dedication to the game, Woods’s right pinkie is misshapen.
“It’s hooked like it’s meant to be on a golf club,” Snedeker said.
On the final nine of the 2013 Barclays, Woods was stalking what could have been his sixth PGA Tour victory of the year when a week of back spasms caught up with him. After hitting a shot from the 13th fairway, he fell to his knees as if struck by lightning.
Woods did not withdraw. Somehow he kept going and even birdied two of his last three holes to finish one stroke behind the winner, Adam Scott. Still ailing, Woods completed 12 competitive rounds over the next four weeks.
It was a familiar script. He had always played through injuries, sometimes in defiance of medical advice. Two weeks before the 2008 United States Open, a doctor told Woods that the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee required him to use crutches for a few weeks, stay off his feet for three more weeks and then begin physical therapy.
Woods limped and flinched throughout the tournament’s four rounds of regulation and the 19 playoff holes he needed to beat Rocco Mediate. Only then did he surrender to the pain, acknowledging that he needed surgery and would take off the rest of the season.
“You can’t question or judge or criticize,” Notah Begay III, a longtime friend and college teammate, said of Woods. “You just have to let things play themselves out because in most cases he usually ends up doing things that really surprise the world.”
During his recovery, Woods’s longest break from golf at that point, he encountered another kind of sports extremism. He received treatment from Anthony Galea, a Canadian sports medicine specialist who later pleaded guilty to a felony charge of bringing misbranded and unapproved drugs — including human growth hormone, which is banned by most sports organizations as a performance enhancer — into the United States to treat athletes.
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Woods said Galea had visited him at his Florida home four times to provide platelet-rich plasma therapy — using a patient’s blood to heal injuries, a process that is not banned — but nothing more.
When he returned to the tour in 2009, Woods bounced back with six victories and three runner-up finishes in 17 starts. That October, Forbes named Woods the first athlete to earn $1 billion. He had ushered in an era of skyrocketing purses and television coverage, had won more major golf titles than anyone but Jack Nicklaus and seemed incapable of slowing down.
A month later, Woods was in a minor car accident that led to the revelation of marital infidelities, a divorce, four months away from golf and the loss of many endorsement deals.
But some things did not change. In 2012, Love was a Ryder Cup captain overseeing a squad led by Woods, then 36. They ran into each other in the hotel early one morning, and Love asked how he was feeling. Woods replied that he had logged 50 miles on a stationary bike. All Love could do was shake his head.
Back injuries have limited Woods to 24 starts on the PGA Tour since the end of 2013. In 2014 and 2015, he had three microdiscectomies, which removed damaged parts of a spinal disk that put pressure on the nerve and caused pain. Woods chose the procedure because it seemed to offer the quickest path back to golf.
And yet he was still unable to play his favorite tournament, the Masters, the past two years, although he attended the champions’ dinners. At last year’s meal, Woods said this week, the pain from merely sitting was excruciating.
“My back was fried,” he said. “I was trying everything, whether it was cortisone shots, epidurals, anything to take away the pain so maybe I might be able to withstand a week.”
Less than two weeks after that Masters, he had lumbar fusion surgery, which involved replacing a disk with a bone graft, causing two vertebrae to grow together and eliminating the motion between them.
A month later, Woods was charged with driving under the influence after the police spotted him, apparently asleep, in his car alongside a road near his home in Jupiter, Fla. The police report said that the car had been damaged and that Woods had struggled to stand on one leg and to touch his finger to his nose. Woods pleaded guilty to reckless driving and checked into a clinic to deal with his misuse of prescription drugs. A toxicology report revealed that at the time of his arrest, Woods had five drugs in his system: the painkillers Vicodin and Dilaudid, the anti-anxiety medication Xanax, the sleep aid Ambien, and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
“I completely understood,” said Lanny Wadkins, 68, a 21-time tour winner whose career was curtailed by chronic back pain, “because at one point, I was like, If this pain doesn’t go away, I want a gun.”
After other procedures failed to provide relief, Wadkins had a six-and-a-half-hour double fusion operation in 1999 at the Texas Back Institute, where Woods had his 90-minute fusion surgery.
Then, Woods said, he did not swing a club for nearly six months.
Robert Watkins Jr., a spine surgeon in Los Angeles who has not treated Woods, placed the chances of a professional athlete performing at pre-injury levels after a lumbar fusion at roughly 60 percent.
Watkins, and other biomechanics experts I interviewed, said the key to the long-term success of fusion surgery is faithfully executing exercises aimed at strengthening, and straightening, the body’s kinetic chain, a system so interconnected that pain in the elbow can lead to back or neck injuries.
“By stopping the motion at the disk space, the fusion can increase stress at other adjacent disks, which may lead to pain and problems from other disks in the future,” Watkins said.
Noting that Woods had tied for second at the Valspar Championship, his fourth tour start after returning from the surgery, Watkins said, “The fact that he contended for a PGA title 11 months after a lumbar fusion is remarkable.”
Woods credited his quick return to a stronger core and increased mobility in key areas, achieved through nonweighted activities like swimming.
“Trying to lengthen my body,” he said. “I can still get the endurance, I can still get the long burn, I can still feel the lactate building, but it’s not loading my body like I used to.”
When he tees off in the Masters on Thursday, Woods will be surrounded by evidence of the changes he wrought in golf since his 1997 win, the first for a person of color and the first of his 14 major victories, including four green jackets.
This year’s 87-man field features players from 23 countries, up from 14 in 1997. For several of this year’s top participants, Woods’s 1997 triumph stoked their interest in the game.
A 5-year-old Hideki Matsuyama watched the telecast from Japan and can still remember the excitement in the commentators’ voices during the Sunday round.
A 9-year-old Jason Day watched from Australia and decided right there and then to do everything in his power to become a dominant player.
A 7-year-old Rory McIlroy, who was hitting 40-yard drives as a 2-year-old, watched from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the next morning, he said, “all I wanted to do was hit balls and try to be Tiger.”
But now, what lessons are they taking from him?
By 21, McIlroy had turned pro, won his first tournaments on the European and PGA Tours and endured his first injury. He was headed down a similar path as Woods — but not anymore. It is perhaps another testimony to how Woods continues to transform the sport that when McIlroy, a former world No. 1, was told what Woods had said about pushing beyond human limits, he responded, “I could never give you that answer.” He added, “I feel I work hard, but I enjoy the rewards on the other side.”
Day, 30, a former world No. 1, said he understood how easy it could be to go too far with workouts. “It gets very addictive,” said Day, who has had back, ankle and thumb injuries. At the British Open last year, Day said, he was in the gym squatting 330 pounds and dead-lifting 350 pounds. “I was doing a little too much,” he said. “We’ve kind of backed off since then.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Phil Mickelson, five years older than Woods and never one to try to bulk up. But he, too, said he had been influenced by Woods’s workout regimen. Woods “came along and really brought fitness to the forefront in people’s minds,” said Mickelson, who began working in 2003 with Sean Cochran, a trainer whose previous clients included the San Diego Padres.
The emphasis from the beginning, Mickelson said, was strengthening the stabilizing muscles around the spine and joints. “We did it with the idea of elongating my career,” said Mickelson, who credits his regimen, which encompasses TRX exercises, medicine balls and balance boards, for his healthy back and avoidance of long-term injuries.
Maybe that’s a fitness lesson for the younger generation. But if Woods succeeds in this comeback, his travails may become just another part of his legend. At least one 20-something views them that way.
Once hailed as the female version of Woods, the L.P.G.A. star Michelle Wie, 28, can almost match Woods injury for injury if not title and title. “Just seeing what his club-head speed is right now and everything,” she said, “seeing how he’s hitting the ball and how he was coming back — it’s truly inspiring and motivating.”
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