How Tiger Woods' Road to Recovery Might Look, According to Medical Experts

Two years ago this April, Tiger Woods stood on the 18th green at Augusta National, Georgia, having just completed one of golf's most epic comebacks.

After being written off by most of the sporting world and undergoing several operations on his troubled back, including a spinal fusion, Woods won The Masters for the fifth time in his career and ended an 11-year wait for a major.

As he donned the Green Jacket for the first time since 2005, it was not fanciful to wonder how close Woods will get to Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18 major wins.

There are now legitimate concerns the 45-year-old may never play golf again, following a horrific single-vehicle crash outside Los Angeles on Tuesday morning.

A pry bar and ax were used to extricate Woods from the wreckage of his SUV, which had come to rest at the bottom of an embankment after rolling over several times.

In the words of L.A. County Sheriff's Department Deputy Carlos Gonzales, "It's very fortunate that Mr. Woods was able to come out of this alive."

Dr. Anish Mahajan, the chief medical officer and interim CEO at Harbor-UCLA, said on Tuesday that Woods had suffered "multiple open fractures" to his lower right leg, which required screws and pins inserted in his right ankle.

A rod was inserted into the tibia to stabilize "comminuted open fractures affecting both the upper and lower portions of the tibia and fibula bones."

Comminuted fracture is a medical term used to indicate a bone is broken in more than one place, while open fracture means the bone has broken through the skin.

The latter poses a major threat to Woods' recovery.

"Preventing infection is critical"

"When there is an open [wound] and bone is exposed, preventing infection is critical," Dr. Alexis Colvin, Orthopedic Sports Medicine Surgeon at The Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, told Newsweek.

"This usually involves antibiotics and potentially return trips to the operating room to continue to clean the tissues and bones."

While in all likelihood the "bacteria will be overcome by the antibiotics" that Woods was treated with, Dr. Rand McClain believes the prospect of additional surgery cannot yet be discounted.

"If the infection cannot be adequately resolved in a timely manner, a decision may be made to remove the hardware—the rod screws and plates that are fastening Tiger's bones together—until they heal to give the body a better chance to defeat the bacteria. This would obviously be a major setback," said McClain, the Chief Medical Officer of LCR Health in Santa Monica, California.

Recovery timelines for this kind of injury are "incredibly varied and very much depends on the extent of bony and soft tissue injury and/or a combination of injuries," said Dr. James Holmes, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at Michigan Medicine.

Fractures such as those suffered by Woods have a "high infection risk, likely in the 10 to 20 percent range" according to Dr. Paul Tornetta, Chairman of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Boston University school of medicine and the Director of Orthopaedic Trauma at Boston Medical Center.

"It also has a chance of not healing which would require further surgery. Assuming that he does not have an infection [...] the extent of recovery will be determined by the amount of muscle that is damaged, any possible nerve injuries, and the time for the bone to heal. One would expect this to be a prolonged recovery, even a year or two, even in the best case."

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods plays his shot from the second tee during the final round of the PNC Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club Orlando on December 20, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. Woods survived a horrific car crash on February 23. Mike Ehrmann/Getty

Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith faced a life-threatening infection after suffering a spiral compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg in Week 11 of the 2018 NFL season.

Smith underwent 17 different surgeries and missed the entirety of next campaign, before returning in Week 5 of last season. He subsequently regained the starting spot in Week 9 and was named Comeback Player of the Year.

If the Washington Football Team quarterback is the most recent benchmark for players looking to return from career-threatening injuries, Woods elicited comparisons to Ben Hogan in the immediate aftermath of his crash.

In 1949, Hogan was told he may never walk again after his Cadillac was crushed by an incoming Greyhound bus as he drove home on Highway 80. His wife, Valerie, credited her husband with diving across the passenger seat to save her, a tale he staunchly refuted.

"That was a bunch of b******t," Hogan said to a friend years later, as per Golf Digest. "I was trying to get out of the way of the bus."

If the nature of Hogan's heroics was up for debate, the extent of his injuries was not. He was left with a double fracture to his pelvis, a broken ankle, a broken collarbone and his eyesight was severely impaired. Against all odds, not only did Hogan come back to play golf but he won six of his nine majors following his brush with death.

Fascinating as the comparisons between Hogan and Woods may be, they are also far from perfect. Hogan was 36 years old at the time of his crash, nine years younger than Woods. Crucially, Woods' injury record is far longer than Hogan's.

The 15-time major winner has undergone operations on his left knee and five procedures on his back, which has been an endless source of pain for the best part of a decade.

"I could barely walk," he recalled after undergoing spinal fusion surgery in 2017. "I could barely do much of anything."

On Sunday, Woods told CBS' Jim Nantz that he was still recovering from back surgery he underwent on December 23 and remained non-committal over playing at The Masters in early April.

"Tiger could be back"

Should the nightmare scenario of an infection be avoided, the road to recovery will be long and almost certainly tortuous.

"When someone's back is not normal, they need more from their legs, hips, knees, ankles and feet," explains Tornetta. "Thus, this injury compounds the challenges he already has."

There are, however, some reasons for Woods to be optimistic that he will still be able to leave golf on his own terms.

Tornetta points out that the Harbor UCLA physicians who treated Woods "are of the highest possible caliber," while McClain believes "it is entirely possible that Tiger could be back playing golf on the tour in a year's time."

The five-time Masters winner had plummeted to 1,199th in the world rankings by the time he returned from spinal-fusion surgery and embarked on a memorable comeback, which culminated at Augusta National two years ago.

"If we've learned anything over the years, it's to never count Tiger out," Barack Obama tweeted on Tuesday of a man who has often made the impossible look routine during an extraordinary career.

Producing another comeback would be an astonishing feat even for a man of Woods' caliber, but he'll almost certainly attempt to do so.

"You never give up," he once said. "That's a given. You always fight. Just giving up's never in the equation."

Disclaimer: None of the physicians interviewed in this piece have treated Tiger Woods and their opinions are based on the details publicly available. Any prognosis offered should be applied to the extent of the injuries, rather than to Woods' case in particular.