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Tiger Woods’s biggest challenge in recovery will be mental, not physical

Tiger Woods looks on after hitting his second shot on the second hole during the second round of the Genesis Invitational golf tournament on Feb. 14, 2020, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. AP Photo by Ryan Kang

Tiger Woods is highly likely to face a lifetime of physical limitations from the serious leg injuries sustained in a rollover car accident, according to Northeastern’s head team physician, and may have to reinvent himself outside of the sport that made him one of the world’s most recognized athletes.

Woods may be hospitalized for several weeks and could have a stabilizing frame known as a fixator attached to his leg to hold the broken bones in place, says Gian Corrado, who leads the university’s Sports Performance Department in addition to serving as associate director of the sports medicine fellowship program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“What he must be feeling right now, I just can’t even imagine how physically and mentally traumatized he is,” Corrado says.

Left, Dr. Gian Corrado, head team physician at Northeastern and associate director of the sports medicine fellowship program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Right, Dan Boothby, director of Northeastern’s sports performance department. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Corrado did not treat Woods, who was operated on in California. Northeastern’s doctor was speaking in general terms about the nature of the golfer’s state of mind and his outlook, post-surgery.

Corrado describes Woods’s injuries as “debilitating” and “serious” and warns it will be a long recovery ahead. No one can know for sure at this point how he will bounce back, and Woods may not ever return to championship golf form. Beyond his physical condition, another concern is the mental and emotional toll he will experience from being away from the sport that he revolutionized, Corrado says.

“For someone like Tiger, or even for our athletes, they have defined themselves by their sport for the entirety of their lives,” he says. “Some are very graceful about that, and some are not.”

Corrado says a danger for Woods is the temptation to abuse drugs and alcohol again. Woods pleaded guilty in 2017 to reckless driving and agreed to enter a diversion program that would wipe his record clean.

He had Vicodin, Dilaudid, Xanax, Ambien, and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in his system when he was arrested at that time on suspicion of driving under the influence, according to a toxicology report obtained by ESPN.

“The most important thing for him mentally is he doesn’t spiral back down into substance abuse,” says Corrado.

Law enforcement authorities on the scene of this week’s crash said they checked for any odor of alcohol or other signs Woods was under the influence of a substance and found none, according to media reports.

“This is purely an accident,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was quoted as saying.

Post-surgery, Woods’s focus should be on emotional healing, advises Dan Boothby, who oversees Northeastern’s staff of athletic trainers, physical therapists, and strength-and-conditioning coaches.

Staying positive after weeks of inactivity will be challenging for Woods, as it would be for any other elite athlete. “The emotional piece is such an important part of it because that promotes physical healing,” he says.

Talk of a return to the links and the high level of play for which Woods was known is superseded by more pressing issues, Boothby adds. “The fact that he’s alive, the fact that there wasn’t more significant injury, that’s got to be the focus,” he says.

Once Woods’s bones and soft tissue are healed, rehabilitation will likely entail gentle range-of-motion exercises to stimulate neuromuscular activity before slowly ramping up the intensity, says Boothby. That will give Woods a better idea of what his physical limitations are. Setbacks, he warns, are to be expected.

“It’s going to be a long process,” Boothby predicts.

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