Book Excerpt: A Hurting Tiger Woods Searches for a Solution

In 2017, Woods had ambitious hopes for his play but instead a spinal fusion became the story.
Omega Dubai Desert Classic - Day One
Omega Dubai Desert Classic - Day One / Ross Kinnaird/GettyImages

From DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods by Bob Harig. Copyright 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission from St. Martin’s Press.

WHEN TIGER WOODS left Augusta National on the evening of April 4, 2017, there could be no visions of future Masters glory.  No thoughts of wearing another green jacket, lifting championship hardware, reveling in the sights and sounds of success. 

His goal was to find some relief. 

His golf career was the furthest thing from his mind. Earlier that day, he met with CBS’s Jim Nantz for what turned out to be  a somber reflection on his Masters career. Nantz recalled Tiger speaking in the past tense, as if his career was over. 

Why would he think otherwise? For the better part of four years, Woods had been in pain. The lower back area where back  problems first surfaced in 2012 and again in 2013 had required  microdiscectomies. The idea was to alleviate the pressure on a herniated disk, a procedure that is called “simple” and yet is anything but.

Cover of "Drive: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods"
"Drive: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods" / Courtesy St. Martin's Press

Woods said after the March 31 operation that he immediately felt relief. And yet it’s all relative. What was relief? 

Notah Begay, Woods’ longtime friend dating back to their college days at Stanford, recalled visiting Woods a week following that surgery. He said Tiger had complained about the stitches  from his surgery and wanted him to take a look. Begay chuckled.

“I’ve read a few medical journals, but shouldn’t we have a doctor look at that?” he recalled saying, before making an appointment.

“Honestly, he couldn’t get up out of the chair under his own power,” Begay says. “This is a guy who I’m helping, one of my dear friends in the world, just to walk to the car. His arm is draped around my shoulders using me for support to help him get step by step. I’m thinking this guy will never play golf the way he ever played before. A sadness came over me. Maybe we’ll never see him  play golf again.

“I just kept thinking of that image of helping him into the car. How is he ever going from this to holding up to a major championship trophy? Wearing a green jacket? I just didn’t see it.” 

Only the most optimistic of supporters could see Woods returning to golf as the first major championship was about to play out in 2017—the optimists, and perhaps those who had no idea just how dire Woods’ situation was at the time.

He headed to the airport that night in pain, having endured plenty just to see his fellow Masters champions at the dinner held in their honor. And now he was about to fly across the Atlantic to meet with consultants who would try to figure something out. Woods just wanted to play with his kids, to kick a soccer ball, play catch, maybe be well enough to swing a golf club for fun.

Competing, being anything like the Tiger Woods, appeared out of the question.

Dan Hellman had started working with Woods late the previous year. Hellman is a physical therapist and trainer, a job title that does not do justice to his various areas of expertise. I met Hellman briefly at the 2016 Hero World Challenge. He was a new face in Woods’ world, and his role soon became clear.

Like just about all who work for Woods, Hellman approached his duties with an abundance of caution and without an abundance of fanfare. That week, he spent time watching the action alongside Tiger’s mom, Tida. It was probably two years before I learned his last name, and long after that before I could understand exactly what he did. It was simply clear that his knowledge was being used  to help Woods navigate the back problems that were sure to surface.

At the time, Hellman had his own practice, called “Hellman Holistic Health of Fort Lauderdale,” later changed to “H3 by Dan Hellman.” In 2017, Golf Digest had recognized Hellman as one of the country’s top fifty golf-fitness professionals.

For nearly twenty years, Hellman offered physical and osteopathic therapy, personal training, counseling in nutrition, and lifestyle management. And as part of all those duties, he became quite proficient in dealing with back pain, especially as it related to disk injuries and rehabilitation.

Hellman was introduced to Woods through Chris Como, who   coached Tiger for a period of time and was keenly aware of the  back problems he faced. The entire time Woods and Como were  together, from late 2014 until Woods’ comeback in 2018, Como  had only a fragile golfer with back issues to try to help.

Aside from the golf-swing part, Como sought medical knowledge and came to know Hellman through other clients. Eventually, Como met with Woods and Hellman, and they began working together during the time in 2016 when Woods was not competing.

Hellman agreed to speak to me only due to his immense respect for Woods. Some five years had passed since he’d last formally worked for Woods, but Hellman understandably wanted it made clear that he still marveled at what Woods endured—and  accomplished.

The idea was to avoid surgery. Hellman, through various techniques, manipulations, and perhaps some hope for divine intervention, did all he could to keep Woods upright, allowing him  the freedom to swing a golf club without searing pain. Or, even more important: to live a normal life.

But the Dubai tournament proved to be too much. 

There had been so much promise at that first tournament a few months earlier in the Bahamas. Woods had plans for an ambitious start to 2017, including a trip to the Dubai Desert Classic, a European Tour event he had won twice and for which he’d be getting a seven-figure appearance fee.

But there were ominous signs when he made his first official PGA Tour start in seventeen months at the Farmers Insurance Open, played at the Torrey Pines course in San Diego where Woods  had enjoyed so much success. He had won there eight times, including the 2008 U.S. Open. 

It had become his typical starting point for the year, and Woods looked forward to getting back and relaunching his career on familiar turf. But Woods opened the tournament with a 76, and the cool mornings and brisk temperatures made for a bad combination with his back. Woods looked far from the limber, speedy golfer he’d seemed in the Bahamas. He added a 72 to his opening score and missed the cut by a mile.

The thought was that the long course, cool conditions, and lack of competition all contributed to the poor showing. Always with Woods, there was a search for optimism. Man, those iron shots still look good. Or the short game did. Anything to avoid the reality: Too much golf, too much cold weather, too much activity was going to catch up with him.

The positive take was that at least Woods would be getting some rest before embarking on a 17-hour journey to the Middle East.

But the long trip to Dubai proved to be a waste of time. He was paid well, but that’s about it. Despite saying otherwise, Woods did not look right during the opening round on Thursday. Frankly, he hadn’t looked all that great at the Farmers Insurance Open a week prior, either.

From the moment he hit his first tee shot, Woods appeared different. He walked gingerly and did not swing freely. On the first hole he emerged from a greenside bunker so awkwardly that Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee said the golfer “looked like an old man.”

Woods didn’t make a birdie on his way to a score of 77, and looked bad. And it made his words on the eve of the tournament more ominous. When asked about the latest reincarnation of his golf swing, Woods said: “The simplest thing is just to play away from pain.”

Tiger Woods is pictured at the 2017 Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Tiger Woods looked nothing like himself at the 2017 Omega Dubai Desert Classic. / Ross Kinnaird/GettyImages

That was never going to work. And, sadly, Woods had been doing that for three years with little success. It’s one of the reasons he often struggled. Bad habits resulted from trying to avoid pain. It’s what the body does. It compensates, which leads to other issues, some of them poor swings, others making matters worse for other  parts of the body.

And then you add it all up. Three microdiscectomies. Virtually two years without competitive golf. Rest, rehabilitation. Nothing worked. And that night at Augusta National could not have been darker.

IT WAS APPARENT that surgery was inevitable. After returning home from Dubai, Woods rested and then began the process of trying to get golf-ready again. The idea of playing at the Genesis Invitational was a long shot. The tournament deadline came and went. Same for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. There was still hope for the Masters—at least publicly—but when Woods tried to ramp up to get ready, it just was not possible.

That is why Hellman had already begun the process of searching for answers. Perhaps more than anyone, he knew how dire the situation Woods faced was, and its intricacies. And he knew that Woods needed surgery.

And that brought on other issues. Who would Woods trust to handle it? What kind of surgery was required? “I knew just about everybody would want to operate on Tiger Woods,” Hellman says.

That led to their clandestine trip to the United Kingdom, where Woods met with consultants, including Dr. Damian Fahy, a surgeon who “functions more like being a patient advocate,” Hellman says. “The goal was to find an advocate who would look after Tiger and not just want to cut on him. Someone who would be in his corner.”

Almost as soon as the plane landed, Woods was on his way to various appointments, spanning three days.

It was during that testing period that Hellman learned the obstacles Woods faced, the pain he endured. Woods had always described the pain he felt as the feeling of bone on bone, something  that puzzled Hellman. “That’s not possible, because you’ve got a  disk there,” says Hellman, who described it as “a feat of human determination” that Woods endured three microdiscectomies on the same level of the spine. “To see that, even playing three rounds  of golf with his spine like that … it’s just amazing.”

Fahy was just as astounded. The consultant spinal surgeon at the Fortius Clinic, Fahy, who also advised tennis star Andy Murray before a hip surgery, said Woods reminded him of the Scots man as it related to the careful management of his treatment.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph after Woods won the 2019 Masters, Fahy expressed his surprise over how arduous the process had been. He spent several days with Woods trying to decide on the best course of action, with the main goal to return him  to a good quality of life, with golf as a bonus.

“People don’t realize just how much pain Tiger was in,” Fahy said in the Telegraph interview. “When he came to see me, his first thought was to get to a place where he would be able to spend  time with his kids without breaking down in agony. The pain was twenty-four/seven.

“You never know how a person will recover—most of it will depend on the patient’s strength of mind—but if he was to get back to playing golf at all, we saw that as a bonus. To get back to the point where he could win the Masters is incredible.

“It took a tremendous amount of courage to go through what he did. He had achieved everything in the sport. A lot of people would have accepted that and retired to a quiet life, but that wasn’t enough for Tiger.”

Fahy could have done the surgery he was proposing. So could another doctor in London he recommended. But for obvious reasons, Woods wanted to return home and not be stuck overseas. Hence, the need for a different recommendation, which led Woods to Dr. Richard Guyer, the spinal surgeon outside of Dallas, who had more than thirty years in the field.

The surgery was scheduled for April 17, barely two weeks later. Nobody knew. In fact, Woods attended a news conference near Branson, Missouri, in conjunction with a design project he had at the nearby Big Cedar Lodge. While there, he answered several questions about his future, never once letting on that the next day he’d be under the care of Guyer.

While a spinal fusion is a common procedure, it’s not a simple one. It requires a lengthy recovery, and it is not conducive to swinging a golf club at a high rate of speed.

Although due to privacy reasons Guyer could not speak specifically about Woods’ surgery, the doctor was clearly a fan. Woods’ team named him in news releases about the surgery. Guyer was picked due to some impressive credentials, including cofounding the Texas Back Institute along with Dr. Stephen Hochschuler, now retired, who said, “Tiger’s people really did their due diligence.”

“I have always believed in Tiger,” Guyer says. “If anyone could do this, it was him. His ability to will himself is really amazing, and that has nothing to do with his spinal fusion. He’s just a remarkable example of someone who has unbelievable will.”

Part of Guyer’s work has involved convincing patients that they can have a normal life after a fusion surgery, as well as convincing insurance companies of the need to cover the procedures.

While they might appear drastic for athletes, especially golfers, spinal fusions are actually quite common, in practice for more than fifty years. They are performed in various ways, some more invasive than others.

Officially Woods’ procedure was called an anterior lumbar interbody fusion, in which an incision is made through the belly button. The disk that had been giving him so much trouble was  removed, and a bone graft and screws helped bring the bones together, ultimately “fusing” them over time. 

Whether Woods expressed any trepidation is unclear.

“Everybody is different,” Hochschuler says. “The procedure can be done in many different ways. Where society is going is minimally  invasive surgery. Outpatient surgery. People want to go outside the  hospital because there is less bureaucracy.

“In terms of doing a fusion, one of the questions you ask [of a doctor] is how many of these have you done? I always for forty five years would say to you I’d get a second opinion. It never hurts. Treat the patient the way you’d want to be treated. Make it simple. This is what we do, this is how we do it. So they can understand  it and ask a question. When they meet with you, they’re nervous. Write down your questions. And if you do and go home, call back.  But write down your questions.”

Hochschuler says that a majority of patients do not need spinal fusion surgery, and that they should try everything possible first:  “Rehab, physical therapy—trying to deal with it,” he says. “But you have to be realistic. We happen to be surgeons, not plumbers.”

So how many of these procedures has Guyer done? “Probably two or three a week,” Hochschuler says. “Over a lot of years. So that’s thousands.”

It would seem Woods was in good hands.


Published
Bob Harig

BOB HARIG

Bob Harig is a senior golf writer for Sports Illustrated. He has more than 25 years experience covering golf, including 15 at ESPN. Bob is a regular guest on Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio and has written two books, DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods and Tiger and Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry. He graduated from Indiana University where he earned an Evans Scholarship, named in honor of the great amateur golfer Charles (Chick) Evans Jr. Bob, a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America, lives in Clearwater, Florida.