Tiger Woods had searing pain running up his leg, so much so that he couldn’t do what he was seemingly born to do — swing a golf club. His back pain was so bad that it affected his quality of life, and the quality of Tiger Woods‘ life had been pretty good.
So in March, doctors made a small incision in the middle of his lower back. His back muscles were lifted off his spine. A surgeon entered Tiger Woods‘ spine and removed a joint to relieve pressure over the nerve. The nerve root was moved to the side and disc material was removed.
Do you feel sorry for Tiger Woods yet?
Tiger is returning to the golf course this week right here in Washington for his own tournament — the Quicken Loans National, at Congressional Country Club — nearly four months after undergoing microdiscectomy surgery on his back to relieve his pain.
Did it take pain and suffering for Tiger to become a sympathetic figure?
Has he suffered enough?
How much does Tiger have to go through until we feel sorry for him?
Stripped of the greatness that defined him — 14 major tournament wins and an aura of invincibility — Tiger was left with himself, and it wasn’t pretty. He was seen as a cold, manipulative shallow figure, still defined now by the Thanksgiving 2009 night when his wife, Elin Nordegren, chased him out of his Florida mansion with a golf club after learning he had been cheating on her.
It turned out he was cheating with half the field out there, including a Perkins waitress, and became a national joke. Major sponsors ran from him, and he was exposed. All that was left was Tiger the guy, and who likes that guy?
The road has been rocky ever since. Phil Mickelson wasn’t the first PGA major winner questioned by federal authorities. Tiger, before Phil, was questioned by the feds in June 2010 for his involvement as a patient of Dr. Anthony Galea, the Canadian doctor arrested and convicted for illegally peddling performance enhancing substances. Tiger hasn’t won a major since and has broken down physically.
He struggled on the golf course, suffering one physical setback after another. He finally bounced back in 2013, winning five PGA events. But he fell short of yet winning another major, and in fact was nearly disqualified for cheating at the 2013 Masters Tournament, accused of taking an illegal drop. He was not disqualified, receiving a two-stroke penalty instead, and the debate raged about whether Tiger received preferential treatment.
Tiger won five tournaments, yet he was still a target. Yes, there were the core golfing Tiger fans, and the TV viewers. But beyond those borders, in the daily discourse of America, Tiger was still a target, and not of sympathy.
He hadn’t fallen far enough yet.
He is making a superhuman recovery, coming back to play just four months after they cut into his back.
Golfer Graham DeLead had the same surgery in 2010. He didn’t play in a tournament for six months, and quickly learned he had come back too quickly. He told reporters when he finally came back to the tour in 2012 he came back too quickly, and wondered out loud if he would ever be fully recovered.
Every recovery can be different. But Tiger’s seems remarkable.
It just happens that Tiger is coming back for his own tournament, which seems mercenary as much as courageous. It was clear this was his target when he wrote about his recovery on his blog in May.
“As I’ve said several times, I hope to be back sometime this summer, but I just don’t know when,” he wrote. “There are a lot of big tournaments coming up, and one that’s personally important to me is the Quicken Loans National. I really appreciate Quicken Loans becoming the title sponsor of my event. It means a lot to me and my foundation. Whether I’m able to play or not, I’m going to be there to support it.”
I suspect sympathy is not a crown he would wear well. He is better suited to be Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer of his time. Ordinary will not play well.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.