Date: November 29, 2017
Author: Martin Blake

Comment: Stay calm on Tiger

The excitement about Tiger Woods' return to competitive golf is entirely understandable. But people need to set the bar low this week when arguably the greatest player of all time tees it up in his own tournament in the Bahamas.

Playing in an 18-man field in an exhibition tournament (albeit for world rankings points) is quite some way from returning to the tour as a full-time professional, and we all need to remind ourselves of that.

There needs to be a reality check.

Woods is 41 (and soon 42). In April this year, he had spinal fusion performed in a Texas medical centre, a major operation that involves removal of damaged disc and the fusion of two vertebrae, usually with screws, with the gap filled either by bone from another part of the person's body, or with metal.

It leaves the joint immobile, but often relieves the pain. In this case, the surgery was performed between Woods' L5 and S1 vertebrae, and so far, it has had good results. Whether it can stand up to the kind of constant torso rotation that any professional golfer will inflict upon his or her back remains to be seen.

He had previously endured three less invasive procedures that were less successful, leaving him with back spasms. This is Last Chance Saloon stuff, a procedure that is meant to improve his lifestyle for the rest of his time on this planet, but it is not a guarantee that he can return to the level of golf that we previously saw.

But it is so good to see him back playing, that's for sure.

Many professional golfers have had back surgery and returned to regular play, such as Davis Love III, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins and Retief Goosen. But according to research undertaken by media in America, the only one who had the same surgery in the same area of the back is Dudley Hart, an American professional, in 2009. Hart's first bout of spinal fusion failed, but he had it redone in 2012 and is now back playing on the tour.

So it is possible, but improbable, in short.

Woods has not won a tournament since 2013, a full four years. His last major championship win was the 2008 US Open, nine years ago. In the meantime, players such as Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy have overtaken him. asked Brandel Chamblee, a Woods critic but one of the sharpest analysts of the game, whether Tiger could return to what he was. Chamblee was blunt:

"No, is the short answer. If you do an internet search of the greatest sports comebacks from injury you'll get a litany of injuries, you'll get shoulders and elbows and knees and hips and ankles. You'll even get some illnesses. The one thing you will not get is a bad back followed by great athletic achievement. You're just not going to get it, especially a bad back by a 41-year-old with four surgeries in the last three or four years.''

The greatest comeback in golf's history is Ben Hogan's win at the 1950 US Open at Merion 18 months after a head-on car crash with a bus left him with a double pelvis fracture, broken collarbone and ankle and cracked ribs. If Tiger could win another major, he would surpass even Hogan's feats in terms of a comeback story.

But really, he does not need to do anything. He already could be the greatest ever.

So celebrate that he can get out on a golf course. Just don't expect too much.

NB: Tiger Woods tees off at 4.05am Friday morning (Australian eastern daylight saving time). Television coverage is from Fox Sports.