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Tiger Woods and His Injuries: Can We Learn Anything?

Last week Tiger Woods announced his withdrawal from tomorrow’s Wells Fargo Championship due to recurring problems with his surgically repaired left knee as well as problems with his right Achilles tendon. Tiger’s injuries are only the latest in an ongoing battle he has fought with physical setbacks during his career. The task of rebuilding his swing only gets more difficult with injuries affecting his body. Tiger’s development from childhood through his rise to the top of the sports world has been a model with many lessons to emulate. However, Tiger has made dubious choices regarding his training in recent years that are worth exploring further.

In 2007 ESPN.com wrote:

"This year, more than ever, Woods incorporated hardcore Navy SEAL-style training exercises, like running with a weighted vest, as a regular part of his two-a-days at home. It exceeded the regimen devised by longtime trainer Keith Kleven, who has endeavored to allow Woods the increased intensity while adapting his program to safeguard against injury."

One year later....Here what Tiger went through in 2008 with his knee:

April 15, 2008—Athroscopic surgery on his left knee to repair cartilage damage. Decides against repairing ligament to avoid longer rehabilitation

June 2008—Two stress fractures of the left tibia revealed prior to US Open.

June 24, 2008—Reconstructive surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and to repair cartilage damage after US Open triumph

December 2008—Ruptures Achilles’ tendon in his right leg.

Also note that Tiger had a history of knee issues prior to 2008, with surgery to remove a cyst in 1994, another surgery in 2002 to repair torn cartilage, and a ruptured ACL in 2007 that he sustained while running on the golf course.

It is unclear to what extent, if any, Tiger’s training choices affected his health. However, the choice of running with a weight vest for anyone not involved with tactical military or law enforcement is unwise. A weight vest while running for a post-surgical ACL patient with a history of knee issues who makes money playing golf? Yikes! Weight vests are valuable for certain exercises (i.e. pullups), but for running they are extremely risky with limited benefit unless one needs to train for the specific demands of carrying more than one’s body weight at a brisk pace, such as military in a military or law enforcement setting. If you need a weight vest to improve running, there are more fundamental problems with your running program than the need for a weight vest. Although Tiger walks long distances on the golf course, he has a caddie to carry his clubs and he never has to run between holes. There are far safer ways to develop endurance conditioning for a golfer. Hills, parachutes, and sleds, are safer means to add resistance if there is a need for additional load beyond the act of running itself.

A hallmark of Tiger’s early development was that his father did not let him progress to the next level until he demonstrated a certain level of proficiency. Tiger learned the game from "the green back." He first learned to putt, then learned to chip, and gradually added longer shots after first having demonstrated prowess in the shorter shots. In competition, he developed a proficiency at winning by first competing in junior events and then moving onto adult amateur events and then professional events only after establishing dominance at each of the lower levels. He earned the right to progress to the next level of skill and competition.

By exposing his bad knee to the excess jarring of running with a weight vest with a history of not being able to protect the knee under the forces of body weight alone, Tiger took on a far greater risk than is necessary for any top level golfer. Based on his injury history, he had not earned the right to run with a weighted vest. Tiger has been long enamored with special operations training (in part because it has opened a gateway to connect with his father’s service as a Green Beret), but unless the Tour makes players carry their own bags and counts speed as part of the score, there are far more effective conditioning strategies that don’t create as much risk with such a little concomitant benefit.

Not just the Knee

Whether we’re talking about Tiger Woods or a mere athletic mortal, we shouldn’t get too focused on the knee itself. After all, knee health is dependent on ankle and hip function (which are themselves dependent on the function of joints even more distal from the knee). Although Tiger's struggles with his left knee have been well documented, less publicized is that Tiger has a longer list of injuries than even serious golf fans might be aware of.

Neck: Tiger withdrew from the 2010 Players Championship due to a sore neck. Were his frequent self adjustments on the course indicative of underlying problems that went unnoticed publicly? Following his withdrawal, Tiger commented that he had been playing in pain for several weeks prior to the on-course flare up at TPC Sawgrass.

Upper back: In 2004, Tiger gallantly played through upper back pain at the WGC American Express Championship, and with the help of on-course massages from caddie Steve Williams, managed to win the event despite warnings that he might withdraw. Supposedly the injury was the result of sleeping awkwardly on the plane.

Low back: In 1998 (his second full season on Tour) Tiger withdrew from the Kemper Open citing low back pain. Interestingly, Tiger’s therapist noted some "irregularities" in his low back.

Wrist: In 1995 while playing as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, Tiger aggravated a wrist while slashing a ball out of heavy rough in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

The Swing

To predict injury based on swing video alone gets into the realm of speculation. We can only guess with 2D video as to the specifics of his physical condition. However, we DO know that Tiger has been in pain (at times very severe pain) and that pain changes motor control in unpredictable ways. Tiger has gone through several swing evolutions with multiple coaches in the past few years to remake highly refined motor patterns while simultaneously managing high levels of pain. Also important is the evolution of his body from a lithe teenager to a much thicker adult. As his former coach Hank Haney noted,

"I think it's fair to say that Butch had a better body to work with than I did. With me, he started looking more like a linebacker than a golfer." (note that Haney began working with Tiger officially in 2004).

Tiger’s recent propensity for injury and the underlying movement factors that caused these injuries only add to the difficult of the swing remodeling task he has sought to undertake. Although you can count me as one who considered his "2000 Swing" as one of the best in the history of the game, physical changes, movement patterns, and injuries will play a critical role in shaping the continued evolution of his swing.

Woods Takes a Week off to Let Sore Back Heal

The Year of Tiger Living Dangerously

Tiger Woods Withdraws During Final Round with Neck Injury

Wounded Tiger's on the Prowl

1995 US Open Notebook: Woods Leaves with Sprained Wrist

 

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