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Tiger Woods is back.
The 15-time major champion is about to play tournament golf for the first time since hobbling out of the Masters citing a recurrence of plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition that made it difficult to walk at Augusta National.
The Hero World Challenge marks Woods’ latest return from intensive surgery, almost 30 years on from the first ever procedure in his injury-ravaged career.
In 1994, it was the removal of two benign tumours in his left knee. Since then, his body has been battered with countless back and knee surgeries that have allowed him to keep a club in hand.
And just days after his Masters withdrawal, Woods was back on the operating table for subtalar fusion procedure in his right ankle. The surgery in New York addressed post-traumatic arthritis from a previous fracture of his talus, which is a bone in the ankle joint.
Now seven months on, Woods has declared himself “completely free” from pain in his right ankle, but we are still left wondering what kind of condition he will be in for his highly-anticipated return in the Bahamas.
Dr Gelber had three concerns about Woods as he gave us some insight into how one recovers from subtalar fusion surgery…
“My ankle is fine,” Woods revealed last month. “Where they fused my ankle, I have absolutely zero issue whatsoever.”
Footage of Woods caddying for his son Charlie last month showed a marked improvement in his movement since withdrawing from the Masters in April. At that stage, there was real concern about whether this was simply one setback too many.
Woods’ ability to walk the course for four days has always been the biggest worry, but the good news is that he has now progressed to a point where he feels he can negotiate 72 holes, albeit on an extremely limited schedule.
Dr Gelber, however, has stressed that the subtalar fusion surgery, which involves fusing two bones and a joint below the ankle into one bigger bone to stifle pain, could have a wider impact, particularly when Woods is met with undulating courses.
“When you have a subtalar fusion, you lose mobility in the joint where your ankle meets your foot,” Dr Gelber says. “This can result in a more stiff walking pattern that can affect the rest of your leg, and may be most pronounced with uneven ground.”
“Athletic actions like a golf swing start from the ground up,” Gelber explains, when asked about how Woods’ swing could compare post-surgery. “It is known as the ‘kinetic chain’. Each body part or joint sets up the next joint in line.
“Subtle losses of movement in the smaller links at the beginning of the chain may have some affect higher up the chain. Sometimes it’s a loss of power. Other times, it means those joints above the broken or weak link have to work harder to generate the same amount of force and power.”
From the limited clips we have seen where Woods is hitting wedges in recent months, his right leg looks under pressure. In one video, you can even see his lower right leg wobbling when he’s holding his finish. The real test, therefore, is whether the leg will hold up when Woods isn’t holding back off the tee.
The knock-on effect
Woods will play two events in quick succession before the year is out.
This week’s Hero World Challenge precedes his visit to the PNC Championship, the team event he will play alongside his son Charlie in Orlando from December 14-17. Recovery will be crucial and Woods is putting huge strain on his ailing body yet again.
“Just like his back when it was fused, the joints above and below the fusion see additional stress,” Gelber says, “and that can cause them to break down and get their own arthritis.”
We know it’s silly to rule out Woods from doing something miraculous again on the golf course, but the knock-on effect from his subtalar fusion surgery in April cannot be ignored.
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