Sport waking up to grim possibility of Tiger retirement

Members of the media congregate outside Harbor-UCLA Medical Center on Wednesday in Torrance, California, where Tiger Woods underwent surgery after sustaining severe leg injuries in a single-car accident on Tuesday. AP

The PGA Tour without Tiger Woods was always inevitable purely because of age. His shattered right leg from his SUV flipping down a hill on a sweeping road through a coastal Los Angeles suburb only brought it closer.

Golf wasn’t ready Wednesday to contemplate the future of its biggest star after the 10th and most complicated surgery on the 45-year-old Woods. There was more relief that he was alive.

“Listen, when Tiger wants to talk about golf, we’ll talk about golf,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said at the World Golf Championship in Florida.

“When you’re going to overcome what he needs to overcome, I think the love of all of our players and everybody out here, it’s going to come forward in a big way and across the entire sporting world.

“I think he’ll feel that energy and I think that’s what we should all focus on.”

Woods made it clear what he faces with an update posted early Wednesday to social media by his team that outlined the “long surgical procedure” at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Anish Mahajan, the chief medical officer, said Woods shattered tibia and fibula bones on his right leg in multiple locations. Those were stabilized by a rod in the tibia. He said a combination of screws and pins were used to stabilize additional injuries in the ankle and foot.

Four previous surgeries to repair ligaments were done on the left knee. This is the first major trauma to the right leg. Woods has had five surgeries on his lower back in the last seven years. The most recent was in December, a microdiscectomy to remove a pressurized disk that was pinching a nerve.

“I would say, unfortunately, it’s very, very unlikely that he returns to be a professional golfer after these injuries,” said Dr. Michael Gardner, chief of orthopedic trauma at Stanford Medical Center. “His age, his multiple back issues, this is going to be a very long road ahead if he chooses to attempt to return to his previous level of golfing.”

Can golf do without the player singularly responsible for its growth?

His watershed victory in the 1997 Masters sent interest in the sport soaring. More than just the first player of black heritage in a green jacket, he won at a more prolific rate than anyone in history´╝Źenabling the PGA Tour to negotiate a television contract that has massively boosted prize money.

Woods won his first tournament as a 20-year-old at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, where the total purse was $1.65 million. At the World Golf Championship this week, first place alone is worth $1.82 million.

So, what now? The PGA Tour has been down this road before.

Ten years ago, when Woods was still smarting from revelations of serial adultery and missed three months with more injuries, the PGA Tour negotiated a nine-year TV deal with increased rights fees. There was no assurance Woods could get back to the top of his game.

Woods has never played more than 21 times in a year on the PGA Tour, which stages events in 46 weeks this season.

But when he plays, no one needs to study TV ratings to measure his impact. In pre-pandemic times, fans often stood six and seven rows deep to get a look. The top 10 players in the world combined don’t attract that kind of attention.

Woods has played only seven times since July and never cracked the top 35. He remains one victory short of his 83rd triumph, which would set a PGA Tour record, the one most reasonable for him to break. That was before the crash.

Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy has already seen one comeback. He often talks about having lunch one day with Woods in Florida, right after the American’s fourth back surgery to fuse his lower spine. He saw the pain. And two years later, he saw Woods win the Masters for a fifth time, his 15th major.

“I don’t want to take anything away from what Ben Hogan did after his car crash or any of the other comebacks that athletes have had in other sports, but right now I can’t think of any greater comeback in sports than the journey that he made from that lunch we had in 2017 to winning the Masters a couple years later,” McIlroy said.

Hogan threw himself in front of his wife right before they were struck by a Greyhound bus in 1949. He broke his pelvis, collarbone and left ankle, chipped a rib and had blood clots that left him with circulation problems the rest of his life. Hogan was 36 at the time.

What the future holds for Woods and for the tour is not anything players were ready to embrace.

“At this stage, I think everyone should just be grateful that he’s here, that he’s alive, that his kids haven’t lost their dad,” McIlroy said. “That’s the most important thing. Golf is so far from the equation right now, it’s not even on the map.”

AP