Tiger Woods & # 39; Return puts his back into the limelight

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The charity wave show with Rory McIlroy and friends was a fun opening act, but the sport's headliner returns this weekend. On Sunday, Tiger Woods will play for the first time in three months and will end his longest layoff since recovering from spinal fusion surgery in 2017. Woods and Phil Mickelson will repeat their 2018 match-play showdown, this time to support coronavirus relief and coupled with former NFL rivals Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

The look will be a meaningful opportunity to assess not only the condition of Woods' golf but also his back, which is an anatomical wildcard after four surgeries. The last glimpse of Woods, 44, in the competitive golf world was mid-February, when he was stiff and uncomfortable shooting a disgraceful 11 ‚Äč‚Äčover par in the final two rounds of the Genesis Invitational to finish last with the golfers making the cut made

It seemed like a small setback at the time. But about a month later, citing issues with his cranky back, Woods withdrew from a series of high-profile March tournaments, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he has won eight times, and the PGA Tour's signature event, the Players Championship. When the PGA Tour was suspended shortly after and the Masters were delayed the same day due to the coronavirus pandemic, Woods remained inactive like thousands of other professional athletes around the world.

But Woods, unlike most of his brothers, has a shrinking window to add to his celebrated sporting legacy. He's tied with Sam Snead for the most PGA Tour wins in his career with 82, and his 15 major golf championships are three behind the record total won by Jack Nicklaus. It's not just Woods' age that will be challenging in the future; there are questions about how long his back can last.

"If he were to chase the record books, it should be done pretty quickly," Dr. Wellington K. Hsu, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who has studied athletes after spinal fusion operations, said Friday. "It is more likely that he will be successful now instead of three, four or five years later. At least based on medical science."

Hsu added that no professional golfer after some sort of merger operation at Woods had returned to competition.

"He's already proven the experts wrong," Hsu said. "Some people have an incredible amount of reserve in every other part of their body, or their muscles are stronger and can support a significantly degenerate backbone to perform at a high level. "

In a video conference call with reporters this month, to promote Sunday's charity event, in which Woods and Manning will work together against Mickelson and Brady, Woods seemed fit and said he was waving a golf club freely again When Mickelson teased Woods about not winning their previous nationally televised game, Woods jumped out t his seat and said, "Wait a minute, I'm a little chilly."

Last month, in an interview with GolfTV, which has a business relationship with Woods, he insisted that his back condition had improved tremendously since February, calling the difference "night and day".

"I feel a lot better than I did then," Woods said. "I've been able to turn a negative into a positive and have been able to train a lot and get my body where I think it should be."

While Woods cannot defend his Masters title until November, if so, and while there will be at least one major championship less this year due to the cancellation of the British Open, his recent hiatus from tournament game are beneficial.

"Leisure is great," Hsu said, noting that Woods most likely has significant arthritis in his back. "Leisure can only help his symptoms and his pain."

But if the PGA Tour resumes in Texas on June 11 as planned, it would theoretically follow a compact schedule of nearly weekly tournaments until almost Thanksgiving, last season Woods took an average of about two and a half weeks off between tournament appearances. three or more weeks between matches.

"I sit down with my team and figure out the best practice schedule, what are the tournaments I need to play to finish," Woods told on GolfTV. & # 39; How much should I play? How much should I rest? All things that are a little bit in the air.

"Unfortunately for myself, I have experienced such episodes in my career with my back where seconds are like months. You have to slow things down and do things at a different pace. "

The first step back is Sunday's game at the Medalist Golf Club, Woods' home course in Hobe Sound, Fla.

" As golfers we played a lot – guys who play games here, & # 39; said Woods during the video conference. "But it still doesn't play for trophies. It's just different. We miss the competition."

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