Tiger Woods withdrew from the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California due to back spasms. Woods underwent a microdiskectomy last year for a herniated disk and has been struggling with his back, and his golf game, since the surgery.
As a result, Woods requires an extensive pre-round stretching routine. Unfortunately, a two-hour fog delay allowed for his lumbar spine to tighten-up leading to significant low back spasms.
“It’s just my glutes are shutting off,” Woods said. “Then they don’t activate and then, hence, it goes into my lower back. So, I tried to activate my glutes as best I could, in between, but they just never stayed activated.”
The Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee and the mainstream media are poking fun at Tiger for his explanation. However, in reality, Woods’ explanation shows he has extensive knowledge of the anatomy of the lumbar spine and a firm grasp on the kinematic sequence of the golf swing.
The kinematic sequence is the order in which the muscle of the body activate to produce a golf swing. This sequence is disrupted after surgery or injury to the back due to denervation of the nerves, weakness of the muscles or both. In short, the muscle memory of your golf swing is lost.
The “glutes” Tiger Woods referred to includes the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius. These buttock muscles are the cornerstones of pelvic rotational speed– the key to driving the ball down the fairway.
The loss of function or reduced function of the “glutes” places additional stress on the lower back creating a catastrophic result for any player not to mention a player with prior back surgery.
In a recent study, golfers with a low handicap were found to have quicker pelvic rotation and increased gluteus maximus and medius strength when compared to high handicap golfers (Callaway, IJSPT, 2012).
In other words, the increased pelvic rotation and gluteal strength of professional golfers translates into both increased driving distance and surgical precision of their short game. In essence, Woods’ loss of gluteal function is negatively impacting his swing mechanics and ball-striking ability.
His current problem can be corrected with appropriate spinal physical therapy and most of all, time. Focus on core muscle strengthening combined with gluteal activation will eventually retrain these muscles. Therapists at the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) will undoubtedly be working on him daily to correct this problem.
Woods is clearly aware of the anatomical limitations of his back and swing. However, getting his body to overcome them will take time.
Dr. Banco is a board-certified, fellowship-trained orthopaedic spinal surgeon. He attended medical school at Jefferson Medical College followed by an orthopaedic surgery residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, both in Philadelphia. Dr. Banco performed his spinal fellowship at The New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, MA. Dr. Banco is on the Editorial Review Board for “The Journal of Spinal Disorders and Techniques.”