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Tiger Woods' injuries make another comeback a long shot

The winner of 15 major titles might struggle to regain enough mobility to keep playing at an elite level.

Tiger Woods' chase for golf immortality has certainly been slowed — or even permanently derailed — by a terrifying car crash that he was fortunate to have survived.

At age 45 and less than three months removed from a fifth back operation, Woods faces steep odds to return to the elite play that made him the world's best-known player.

After Woods' single-car crash on the Palos Verdes peninsula south of Los Angeles, surgeons inserted a rod into his tibia to stabilize fractures, while screws and pins were used to stabilize foot and ankle injuries, Woods' team said.

"Mr. Woods suffered significant orthopaedic injuries to his right lower extremity that were treated during emergency surgery by Orthopaedic trauma specialists," Dr. Anish Mahajan, the chief medical officer of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said in a statement.

"Comminuted open fractures affecting both the upper and lower portions of the tibia and fibula bones were stabilized by inserting a rod into the tibia. ... Trauma to the muscle and soft-tissue of the leg required surgical release of the covering of the muscles to relieve pressure due to swelling."

Even the best-case reading of that laundry list of procedures had NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres, a veteran emergency room physician, worried about Woods' golfing future.

"So he's going to get the usual post-recovery from a fracture, muscle atrophy, having to go back and learn how to walk again, to make sure he builds up that muscle. That's going to take a few months," Torres said Wednesday on NBC's "TODAY" show.

"But if he had to get that ankle fused or if he had any big procedures done to that ankle," that's "going to limit mobility, that's going to take longer to recover, and he truly might never get that mobility back he had before, which could definitely impact the way he plays," Torres said.

With regard to Woods' fractures, he said: "'Comminuted' basically means that bone was broken in multiple parts. It was not just a clean fracture.

"That's when you can start having complications," he continued, saying that type of injury requires "a lot of surgery to get that bone back to where it's supposed to be and get that bone stable."

Woods has suffered more than his share of aches and pains over a long career that has put him in the public spotlight since childhood.

Just four months after his last major title, the 2019 Masters, Woods underwent surgery to repair knee ligaments.

In 2017, Woods was arrested after he was found asleep behind the wheel of his car. He had various painkillers and sleep medication in his system; he said he was seeking relief from back pain.

And Woods famously fell to his knees in pain from back spasms during the 2013 Barclays tournament.

Woods' best-known car crash came just after Thanksgiving 2009 outside his home in Florida. The incident inadvertently revealed a bitter marital dispute with his wife at the time, Elin Nordegren, as a host of women came forward to admit to having had extramarital affairs with Woods.

Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, said Wednesday that it might be too early to count Woods out, because his injuries, from a traumatic high-speed crash, are so uncommon for a pro golfer.

"It's not a sports injury, per se, that we typically see," Metzl said. "I think that's an important point, because when someone strains their hamstring, tears their ACL or breaks their wrist sliding into second base, we can give a very accurate timetable."

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Metzl theorized that even some severe lower-leg injuries could be overcome as long as Woods' joints, tendons and nerves, employed in a golfer's twisting motion while striking the ball, survived major damage.

"It's unknown, but if there were an area that could potentially have the chance" to be overcome "with all the unforeseen hurdles and all the potential complications going forward," his lower-leg trauma "could be potentially one of those areas," Metzl said.

The broadcaster Mike Tirico, who leads golf coverage for NBC Sports, said the scene of Woods' crash reminded him of horrific NASCAR wrecks "where you watch a serious crash and the driver is lucky to get out alive." He said the road back for Woods will be a long one.

"I've got a list printed out here of all of Tiger's surgeries. It is as long as any athlete that we see compete. He's been through so much physically," Tirico said.

"He was trying as best he could to hope he could play in the Masters in April after this back procedure. It wasn't sounding like it was trending that way when we heard him on Sunday, but with Tiger, you never count anything out. This looks like really long odds. We'll hear as the days go on, and we'll get more details."

The wreckage of the 1949 Cadillac golfer Ben Hogan was driving when he was in a collision with a bus near Van Horn, Texas, Feb. 2, 1949 while en route to his home in Fort Worth.
The wreckage of the 1949 Cadillac golfer Ben Hogan was driving when he was in a collision with a bus near Van Horn, Texas, Feb. 2, 1949 while en route to his home in Fort Worth.AP file

The most optimistic parallel to Woods might be golfer Ben Hogan, who was nearly killed when his Cadillac was crushed by a Greyhound bus on the foggy night of Feb. 2, 1949, near Van Horn, Texas.

Doctors told Hogan, the winner of three majors titles at that point in his storied career, that he might not walk again after he broke his pelvis and a collarbone. Hogan recovered and went on to win six more majors.

Hogan's recovery tale differs from Woods' in one major statistic: age. Hogan was 36 and still in the prime of his game at the time of his crash.

Ben Hogan Being Lifted on a Gurney
Golf champion Ben Hogan is lifted from a train that took him to his home town to recuperate after a near-fatal auto accident in 1949.Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

Even before Tuesday morning, Woods had already been facing down the undefeated foe of Father Time.

He has won 15 major tournaments and once looked to be a shoo-in to break the record of 18, set by Jack Nicklaus.

But as injuries have slowed Woods' run at major titles, it's looking more unlikely that he'll ever overtake the Golden Bear, who was 46 when he won his last big championship, the 1986 Masters.

Eleven-time major champion Walter Hagen and nine-time winners Hogan and Gary Player were 37, 40 and 42 years old, respectively, when they captured their final signature titles.

"We all know he's a strong cookie physically, mentally, so if someone's going to get through this, he will and be back for the better, I'm sure," pro golfer Tony Finau said ahead of this weekend's World Golf Championship-Workday Championship in Florida.

Jon Rahm, the PGA's No. 2-ranked player, bemoaned all the injuries Woods had suffered before the crash and wished him the best.

"Couldn't believe it. As if he hasn't — his body hasn't endured enough," Rahm said. "Just hoping out of a bad situation the best possible outcome, and I hope he can recover from it and we can see him on the golf course as early as possible."