Masters Week with No Tiger

It’s Masters Week, and the Tiger won’t be on the prowl. Still the #1 golfer in the world, Tiger Woods had microdiscectomy surgery in his lower back on March 31st this year. He’s having to be immobilized for two weeks. Recovery from this type off surgery is 3 to 6 months. I don’t think Tiger will be playing in the U.S. Open, which is in June. He shouldn’t push it. Take it easy.

Dr. Robert Watkins performed the surgery. For the past 25-30 years, Watkins has been generally regarded as the best spine surgeon of the lumbar region in the U.S. He used to be with the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Englewood, California. It’s located near the LAX airport and adjacent to the Centinela Hospital. Dr. Kerlan is regarded as “the father of sports medicine.” I talked to him on the phone one time.

As most golfers know, golf is bad on the back, at least for most of us. When I was about to turn 50 years of age and become eligible to compete on the Senior Tour (now the Champions Tour), I had a bad lower back. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to compete again in pro golf at that level, in which you play many tournaments per year. So, I visited the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic for an evaluation of my lower back. MRIs showed that I had two deteriorating dics which appeared considerably darker in the images than my other discs.

I wanted to see Dr. Watkins, but he wasn’t available during that time. So, I saw another doctor there. I think it was a blessing in disguise even though he didn’t play golf or know hardly anything about it. As we discussed the possibility of me competing on the Senior Tour, he said something about a “golfer’s bad back” that I had never heard of before. He said, “golfers get a bad back because they bend over to hit the ball. If they didn’t have to do that, they wouldn’t get a bad back.”

I said, “Who says they have to do that? Ben Hogan stood almost straight up when he addressed the ball and hit it, and I never heard of him having a bad back even though he hit all those practice balls.” I was intrigued and asked him for more information. He explained it in medical units of the measurement of pounds of pressure on the discs in the low back when the average golfer swings the club. He said bending over and rotating your hips in a golf swing causes at least twice as many pounds of pressure on the low discs in your back compared with standing straight up and rotating. I was amazed that I had never heard this.

Regarding the address position in golf, especially with longer clubs, many of us Touring pros tried to address the ball by keeping our spine straight. They still do this on the Tour, and Tiger Woods may be about the best example of it. It was thought that doing so put less strain on the lower back during the swing. But this doctor was talking about something quite different from that. He was talking about the angle formed by the spine and thighs at the address position. He was saying that the more you reduce this angle at address, and therefore throughout the swing, the less strain it produces on the lumbar (low back) discs.

I promptly flew back home to Texas, got a driver out of my golf bag, and tried what he was saying. At the time, my back was hurting me some. I first took my normal stance, with my usual amount of angle between my thighs and lower spine.  When I swung the golf club, my back hurt as usual. I then stood taller at address, with that angle formed by my spine and thighs being much reduced. I swung and my back didn’t hurt! I was amazed. I experimented several times with it, and the results were the same. I went to the golf course and hit balls doing it, and the results were the same hitting the ball.

So, I then played the Senior Tour fulltime for the next ten years by standing taller at address. I think it allowed me to play the Senior/Champions Tour and be somewhat successful.

About a year later, I went to LA again and got an evaluation from Dr. Robert Watkins. But I was doing pretty good with the back, and it was also because I was doing the back exercises they recommended. During my time on the Senior/Champions Tour, the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic and Centinela Hospital provided medical care to us pros with the use of one or two trailers that traveled the country to all of the tournaments. If it wasn’t for that, a lot of us pros felt we wouldn’t have had that second lease on life that the Senior/Champions Tour gave us.

When you view film of Tiger Woods as a teen-ager and somewhat in his early years on Tour, he stood taller at address. When you do that, you have to stand closer to the ball. The more you bend over, like Arnold Palmer did, the farther you must stand from the ball. And the closer you stand to the ball, the more upright your swing must be. In his youth and his early and best years on Tour, Tiger Woods stood close to the ball and had an upright swing.

At about the midpoint in Tiger Wood’s pro career, he started changing his swing to a flatter swing arc. To do that, he stood farther away from the ball at address and therefore bent over more. Before that, I think Tiger Woods had one of the best golf swings I’ve ever seen, maybe the best. But when he made those changes, I think it ruined his swing and gave him a bad back. However, Tiger always swung extremely hard by swiveling his hips so much on his forward swing. That’s how he hit the ball so far. That in itself could have given Tiger his bad back. But I think he made the situation worse when he went to the flatter swing and stood farther from the ball at address.

Ben Hogan and Sam Snead played a classic 18-hole match at Houston Country Club in Houston, Texas, that was televised. It was when Hogan had retired and Sam was still playing a few tournaments on Tour. Gene Sarazen interviewed them, asking both of them for a swing tip for viewers. Ben said the main key to his success was a early, quick, and full rotation of his hips on his forward swing. He said you couldn’t do that too much. But again, Hogan stood very tall at the ball, and it was largely because he was short, being five feet and eight inches tall, with fairly long arms.

Since I’m pontificating on Tiger Wood’s swing, I’ll say something more about it and his left knee. Tiger has had three operations on his left knee. His violent hip rotation certainly put strain on his left knee. But I have been surprised that Tiger has always taken his stance with his left foot almost perpendicular to his target line. That puts a lot more strain on the knee during the forward swing than if right-handed golfers would turn their left foot out somewhat toward their target when taking their stance.

Ben Hogan turned his left foot open at address at what he called “a quarter turn.” He meant that his left foot was turned 22.5 degrees to the left of a line perpendicular to his target line. That allows the hips to turn more on the forward swing. But I think the best thing about it is that it takes strain off of the left knee in the forward swing. Of course, Hogan’s right foot was perpendicular to his target line at address. This is how I always played golf ever since I was a youngster starting the game. Why? In those days, and where I played golf, golfers talked all the time about how good Ben Hogan was at hitting the full golf shots. Indeed, there was no better, and there still has not been anyone his equal.

So, I think Tiger Woods should come back from his back surgery by standing tall and with his left foot pointed out at address. Otherwise, I don’t think he’s got a chance of beating or tying Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. And it may be only because these orthopaedic problems that us golfers can get are seriously slowing him down.

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