With the 2014/15 USPGA tour in full swing and all players looking for a successful start to 2015 to allow them to be on top of their game leading up to the majors, it appears we have seen the last of Tiger Woods for this year.
Tiger’s first round at The Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines didn’t go exactly how he planned, with the 14-time major champion only making it through 11 holes before abandoning his round due to more back pain. Tiger was playing in only his second tournament of the season after returning from surgery on his lower back, which caused him to miss last year’s Masters and US Open.
It’s since emerged that Tiger will take a step back and won’t return to the course until he feels ready. This has prompted all kinds of questions. Is Tiger’s golfing career that we once knew over?
What’s the problem?
At Torrey Pines, Tiger appeared to hurt his back after hitting his tee shot on the 12th, which was his third hole of the day, but carried on for eight more holes before calling it a day. Play had been delayed for more than two hours due to fog; and in brief words to reporters, Tiger said his lower back became tight during the delay. He said: “My glutes keep shutting off and that causes me pain in my back, it got worse as we stood waiting on the putting green during the delay and I tried warming up my glutes, but it just wasn’t working for me.”
He then went on to say: “When we went back out, it just got progressively worse.”
Let me explain what I think Tiger means when he says his glutes kept switching off. One of the glute (buttock) muscles helps control rotation of the pelvis on the hip, this muscle is known as Gluteus Medius. If this muscle ‘switches off’ or is inefficient and doesn’t recruit effectively during his golf swing, he will have to compensate elsewhere and in doing so he rotates through his lumbar spine, which was not designed to rotate, hence causing him back pain.
Let’s go back to 2014 when Tiger’s back issues began. The first time Tiger’s back problems became public knowledge was during the Honda Classic in March, in which he withdrew during the final round. At the end of March he went under the knife and underwent an operation called a micro discectomy. This procedure is completed to remove a part of the disc, which is compressing on the nerve. In Tiger’s case the disc was compressing a nerve in his lower back, causing his back pain. After a long and painstaking recovery, Tiger eventually returned to competitive golf at the Quicken Loans National in June and played in the Open at Hoylake in July. His form since has clearly been dented and affected by his recent back problems; with him recently carding his worst ever round in professional golf at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
A change in swing technique?
Tiger Woods seemed to have solved his lower back issue through surgery and rehab following his operation in 2014, until this happened at Torrey Pines.
It is clear to see, since Tiger Woods has picked up his back injuries, he has been a shadow of his former self on the golf course. But where did this back pain come from? What caused it?
Looking back at Tiger’s swing, you can see there have been major changes since his knee problems in 2008. For years, under the guidance of swing coach Butch Harman, Tiger snapped his left knee on impact to generate power, club head speed and therefore increase his distance. This ‘knee snap’ of Tiger’s became famous in the world of golf; with other golfers trying to replicate this movement to gain the success it brought Tiger for many years. In 2008, Tiger underwent an ACL repair and arthroscopy on his left knee, this damage had been caused by the years of repetition and force through his left knee, caused by the ‘knee snap’ and the way he swung the golf club. After the operation in 2008, Tiger changed his swing to prevent any further damage being caused to the left knee. He developed a new swing without the ‘knee snap’. Tiger was still able to hit the ball as far and gain some success with this swing, so how did he do it?
In order to generate the power lost from his ‘knee snap’, Tiger had to create more of a ‘coil’ during his swing. To do this he had to rotate more through his hips and back. This rotation was clearly too much for Tiger’s lower back to handle and led to his back injury in 2013. Tiger’s lower back was not strong enough to be able to control the amount of rotation he was putting through it, leading to the disc bulge and nerve compression. The operation he had solved the disc bulge and nerve compression, but these were caused by the lack of control and weakness of certain muscles in his lower back when he swung the golf club. In my opinion, this is why he has had another episode of back pain recently. Tiger hasn’t solved the actual issue, he has actually only solved the problems (disc bulge and nerve compression) that were caused by the actual issue.
Following Tiger pulling out of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, old swing coach Butch Harmon has come out and said he believes Tiger’s back pain could be caused by the amount of force he puts into his swing:
“It does look like he’s coming a lot from the inside and he’s going so hard,” Harmon told Sky Sports News. “He’s in warp speed, it’s unbelievable how hard he goes. On the driving range he doesn’t go at it so hard, he goes at it controlled with some speed. On the golf course he looked like he was swinging out of control.”
Butch Harman is on to something here. Tiger isn’t necessarily swinging ‘too hard’, he is unable to control his lower back and body when he does go at it hard. In my opinion, certain lower back muscles, what I would call ‘stabilisers’, aren’t recruiting effectively to control the de-acceleration phase of his golf swing, hence when he goes at it ‘hard’ and at ‘speed’ his body has to compensate and use other areas to de-accelerate, causing him pain. If Tiger is strong enough, has the ability to control his lower back during the golf swing and has the ability to de-accelerate efficiently through the correct muscle groups, he can go at it as hard as he wants, but at this minute in time he clearly hasn’t the strength or control to “go at it hard”.
If Tiger was to become efficient around his pelvis and lower back, by controlling the rotation movement, force and stress that the back is put under during his golf swing, he would correct the initial problem and prevent any further back problems occurring or re-occurring.
In clinic, I use a screening tool called the Golf Matrix, which highlights areas in the body, which are susceptible to injury. The Golf Matrix Screening highlights inefficiencies and weaknesses in muscles, which could lead to injuries similar to what Tiger Woods has sustained, which are extensive and shown in the picture below. Furthermore the screening highlights areas which are already compensating, which could be affecting your swing and performance.
This infographic, published by ESPN here, is certainly very interesting.
For any questions on the Golf Matrix Screening, please email myself at firstname.lastname@example.org
Golf Injury and Performance Specialist at Summit Physio