Dan Cancian of Newsweek spoke to medical experts about the injuries Tiger Woods endured on February 23rd. The shock that the golfer may never play again comes just two years after Tiger Woods stood on the 18th green at Augusta National, Georgia, having just completed one of golf’s most epic comebacks.
The 45-year-old was in a terrible single vehicle car crash outside of Los Angeles. Woods was extricated from his rolled SUV with a pry bar and ax. In the words of L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Carlos Gonzales, “It’s very fortunate that Mr. Woods was able to come out of this alive.”
Dr. Anish Mahajan said on Tuesday that Woods had suffered “multiple open fractures” to his lower right leg, which required screws and pins inserted in his right ankle. Mahajan works as the chief medical officer and interim CEO at Harbor-UCLA,
A rod was inserted into the tibia to stabilize “comminuted open fractures affecting both the upper and lower portions of the tibia and fibula bones.”
Comminuted fracture is a medical term used to illustrate a bone is broken in more than one place, while open fracture means the bone has broken through the skin. This unfortunately poses a major threat to Woods’ recovery.
“When there is an open [wound] and bone is exposed, preventing infection is critical,” Dr. Alexis Colvin, Orthopedic Sports Medicine Surgeon at The Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, told Newsweek.
“This usually involves antibiotics and potentially return trips to the operating room to continue to clean the tissues and bones.”
While in all likelihood the “bacteria will be overcome by the antibiotics” that Woods was treated with, Dr. Rand McClain believes the prospect of additional surgery cannot yet be discounted.
“If the infection cannot be adequately resolved in a timely manner, a decision may be made to remove the hardware—the rod screws and plates that are fastening Tiger’s bones together—until they heal to give the body a better chance to defeat the bacteria. This would obviously be a major setback,” said McClain, the Chief Medical Officer of LCR Health in Santa Monica, California.
Recovery timelines for this kind of injury are “incredibly varied and very much depends on the extent of bony and soft tissue injury and/or a combination of injuries,” said Dr. James Holmes, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at Michigan Medicine.
Fractures such as those suffered by Woods have a “high infection risk, likely in the 10 to 20 percent range” according to Dr. Paul Tornetta, Chairman of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Boston University school of medicine and the Director of Orthopaedic Trauma at Boston Medical Center.
“It also has a chance of not healing which would require further surgery. Assuming that he does not have an infection […] the extent of recovery will be determined by the amount of muscle that is damaged, any possible nerve injuries, and the time for the bone to heal. One would expect this to be a prolonged recovery, even a year or two, even in the best case.
Another notable leg injury that could provide insight is that of Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith. He faced a life-threatening infection after suffering a spiral compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg. This happened during the 2018 NFL season, in Week 11.
Smith underwent 17 different surgeries and missed the entirety of next campaign. He went on to return in Week 5 of last season. His recovery was successful as he regained the starting spot in Week 9 and was named Comeback Player of the Year.
The Washington Football Team quarterback is one the most recent benchmark for players looking to return from career-threatening injuries.
Alex Smith wasn’t the only comparison drawn after the accident. Woods also elicited comparisons to Ben Hogan.
In 1949, Hogan was in a serious car crash. An incoming Greyhound bus crushed his Cadillac as he drove home on Highway 80. His injuries were extensive and he was told he may not ever walk again. Hogan was left with a double fracture to his pelvis, a broken ankle, a broken collarbone and his eyesight was severely impaired. Against all odds, not only did Hogan come back to play golf but he won six of his nine majors following his brush with death.
There are some differences between the incidents of Hogan and Woods, though. Hogan was 36 years old when the crash took place, making him nine years younger than Woods. Another point to note, Woods’ injury record is far longer than Hogan’s, as he’s undergone operations on his left knee and back. These injuries have been a significant source of pain for Woods throughout the years.
“I could barely walk,” he recalled after undergoing spinal fusion surgery in 2017. “I could barely do much of anything.”
On the Sunday before the accident, Woods told CBS‘ Jim Nantz that he was still recovering from back surgery he underwent on December 23 and remained non-committal over playing at The Masters in early April.
Even if an infection is avoided, the road to recovery will be long and almost certainly tortuous.
“When someone’s back is not normal, they need more from their legs, hips, knees, ankles and feet,” explains Tornetta. “Thus, this injury compounds the challenges he already has.”
Still, it’s not all bad news for Woods’ future. Tornetta points out that the Harbor UCLA physicians who treated Woods “are of the highest possible caliber,” while McClain believes “it is entirely possible that Tiger could be back playing golf on the tour in a year’s time.”
The five-time Masters winner had plummeted to 1,199th in the world rankings by the time he returned from spinal-fusion surgery and embarked on a memorable comeback, which culminated at Augusta National two years ago.
“If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to never count Tiger out,” Barack Obama tweeted on Tuesday of a man who has often made the impossible look routine during an extraordinary career.
Though the feat of a comeback would be incredibly impressive, it’s almost a given that Woods will attempt it.
“You never give up,” he once said. “That’s a given. You always fight. Just giving up’s never in the equation.”
Disclaimer: None of the physicians interviewed in this piece have treated Tiger Woods. Their opinions are based on the details publicly available. Any prognosis offered should be applied to the extent of the injuries, rather than to Woods’ case in particular.