Pain in the Neck


Of all the drama that has permeated from Tiger Woods’ life the last two years – ACL surgery, bad driving, bad decisions – the most concerning episode, the one with the most far-reaching potential, was unveiled two Sundays ago at TPC Sawgrass.

A neck injury to a golfer is the professional equivalent of a staff ace with a blown out rotator cuff, a quarterback with one too many concussions, a NASCAR driver with Plantar fasciitis in his right foot. . . well, you get the picture.

If there is concern within Camp Tiger it couldn’t be found in the world No. 1’s preemptive press release last week. The Cliff’s Notes version is this: an MRI revealed Woods has an inflamed facet joint in his neck, not a bulging disc like Dr. Tiger suggested at The Players, there will be no surgery, just rest, anti-inflammatory medication and deep-tissue messages.

There was no return date set, but the release said, “The layoff is not expected to be extensive but can vary.” Translation: Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial likely lost its defending champion , but the Pebble Beach U.S. Open did not.

“Full recovery” the Team Tiger release said, which is good news for Woods, if not golf. It may also be a tad optimistic. One need to look no further than Sunday’s tee sheet at The Players to fully understand the possible impact of last week’s diagnoses.

“I know how he feels,” said Davis Love III, who has spent almost as much time in his orthopedist’s office as he has the practice tee with, among other ailments, a similarly inflamed facet joint. “It’s a scary feeling when your fingers are tingling and you’re hitting shots and getting headaches.”

Woods’ final-round playing partner at TPC Sawgrass had a unique perspective on Sunday, and could have offered some insightful, albeit unsolicited, advice. Jason Bohn has had multiple neck surgeries, was nearly side-lined for good when one of those procedures resulted in a sliced spinal cord and has dealt with the voices that inevitably come when one’s future in the game is suddenly left to the delicate tissues and bones of the neck.

“When he said it was his neck, I mean, I was just like, you've got to go. Just take care of yourself. Figure out what it is and make sure it doesn't turn into something terrible,” said Bohn who suffered from a fragmented disc in his neck. “I'm kind of glad that he doesn't take any chances. We don't need him to sit out any longer. We want him to come back and playing great golf.”

Most Tour trainers, many of whom have become jailhouse orthopedist over the years, concur with Woods’ prognosis. Rest and the proper rehabilitation should cure what ails the game’s alpha male, at least inside the ropes. And many have suggested that No. 1’s neck problem is at least indirectly related to his well-publicized off-course misadventures, but a neck injury, even more so than a completely rebuilt left knee, is a red flag on a no-go pin. A watch-list regular that may fade with time and rehab, but never fully mends mentally.

“When my neck goes out it feels like someone is stabbing me with a knife,” said Jimmy Walker, whose promising Tour career was slowed by a bulging disc at his first event as a rookie in 2005. “If you blow out your ACL you think, yeah, we can fix that. But with a back or neck injury it’s always there. If you lose feeling in your hands or fingers, that’s big in golf.”

Maybe the most telling insight into the uncertainty a neck injury can cause came courtesy Woods’ former swing coach Hank Haney, who pointed out in the wake of Tiger’s early exit from The Players that this was the same player who won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg.

Woods has given us a lot of reasons to doubt him of late, but Torrey Pines should be the ultimate swing vote when it comes to any debate about his toughness. The guy is Steve Nash without the nose guard, which makes his TPC WD even more concerning.

Neck injuries play by different rules. It took years for Love to overcome his match with an inflamed facet joint. Physically, the 46 year old has never felt better, but the eggshell existence of being one awkward swing away from a relapse is the cost of doing business.

“I was just scared. Every time I hit a shot I could feel it in my head, it was tingling. It's disconcerting, certainly,” Love said.

Woods will recover from this. Always does. And, knowing his standard for secrecy, we may never speak of this again. But make no mistake, Woods will be thinking about it for a long time.