ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
AP photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / Tiger Woods has been one of the biggest names in sports for decades, with his 82 PGA Tour victories tying a record and his 15 major titles second only to 18-time champion Jack Nicklaus. After a wreck Tuesday that shattered his right leg and required extensive surgery, though, Woods is expected to be away from golf for a long time.

The PGA Tour without Tiger Woods was always inevitable purely because of age. His shattered right leg — the result of the SUV he was driving Tuesday flipping down a hill on a sweeping road through the Los Angeles suburbs — only brings that closer.

Golf figures interviewed Wednesday weren't ready to contemplate the future of the sport's 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 Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Florida, which is hosting a World Golf Championship tournament this week. "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 in his lower 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 his right leg. Woods has had five surgeries on his lower back in the past 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."

Also Wednesday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva characterized the crash that seriously injured Woods as "purely an accident" and appeared to rule out any potential criminal charges even as authorities were still investigating.

Woods was driving alone when his SUV struck a raised median, crossed into oncoming lanes and flipped several times. Deputies did not see any evidence Woods was impaired by drugs or alcohol after Tuesday's wreck on a stretch of road known for crashes, Villanueva said.

"He was not drunk," Villanueva said during a livestreamed social media event. "We can throw that one out."

Villanueva said investigators may seek search warrants for a blood sample to definitively rule out drugs and alcohol. Detectives also could apply for search warrants for Woods' cellphone to see if he was driving distracted, as well as the vehicle's event data recorder, or "black box," which would give information about how fast he was going.

The crash was the latest setback for Woods, who at times in his career has looked unstoppable with his 15 major championships and record-tying 82 PGA Tour victories.

In 2017, Florida police found him asleep behind the wheel of a car parked awkwardly on the side of the road. He was arrested on a DUI charge and said he had an unexpected reaction to prescription medicine for back pain. Woods later pleaded guilty to reckless driving and checked into a clinic to get help with prescription medication and a sleep disorder.

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

His watershed victory in the 1997 Masters sent media interest in golf 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. The timing was impeccable as the PGA Tour negotiated a television contract that made prize money spike.

Two months after turning professional, Woods earned his first PGA Tour victory at age 20 in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, where the total purse was $1.65 million. At this week's WGC-Workday Championship, first place alone is worth $1.82 million.

Woods made everyone rich. What now?

The PGA Tour has been down this road before.

Ten years ago, when Woods was still smarting from the sordid 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 was playing a small schedule even when he was younger and healthier. He has never played more than 21 times in a year on the PGA Tour, which is scheduled to stage events in 46 weeks this season.

He also tends to return to the same courses, but when he plays — and there isn't a pandemic — no one needs to study TV ratings to measure his impact. Fans often stand six and seven rows deep behind tees and greens to get a look. No other player attracts that kind of attention. The top 10 in the world combined don't do that.

Woods doesn't move the needle. Woods is the needle.

"It's always great when he plays at a tournament or is out here because it gives that tournament an extra dimension that it usually doesn't (have)," four-time major champion Rory McIlroy said. "We were all sort of heading towards that day that Tiger wasn't going to be a part of the game."

Woods had only one top-10 finish last year, and that was before the pandemic. Even after golf returned, he waited an additional month to get started. He played only seven times since July and never cracked the top 35. He remains one short of an 83rd PGA Tour victory, which would break the record he shares with Sam Snead.

It was the most reasonable record of note remaining for Woods to break — he is second on the all-time list of major winners, with Jack Nicklaus on top with 18 such titles — but that was before the crash.

McIlroy already has seen one comeback. He often talks about having lunch one day with Woods in Florida, right after Woods' fourth back surgery to fuse his lower spine. He saw the pain. And two years later in April 2019, he saw Woods win the Masters for a fifth time, his 15th major.

What the future holds for Woods and for the tour is not anything McIlroy was ready to contemplate deeply.

"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."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT