Tiger Woods' Surgery Will Allow Younger Players to Dominate PGA Tour

Fred AltvaterContributor IIApril 1, 2014

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are both battling health issues.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are both battling health issues.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are at a disadvantage on the golf course, but that is indeed the case.

Mickelson is 43 years old and will turn 44 on the Monday following the U.S. Open in June. Woods is 38, and both Woods and Mickelson have been bothered by injuries this season. Neither has a top-10 finish in 2014, and Woods has played only 10 competitive rounds on the PGA Tour all year.

Woods missed the 54-hole cut at Torrey Pines, withdrew from the Honda Classic with back issues and struggled to finish T-25 after a final-round 78, when back spasms once again flared up, at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

On Tuesday, he announced via his website that he had undergone surgery to repair a pinched nerve in his back and would miss the Masters next week. It will be the fifth major championship he has been unable to play in since 2008.

Woods is hoping to return to competition this summer.

Much is made of Woods’ goal to reach Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record. His last major title came at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, before swing changes, divorce and injury curtailed his winning ways.

Nicklaus’ 18 major championship titles, like the Miami Dolphins' undefeated season in 1970, are safe for the time being.

From 1997 to 2008 (age 21-32), Woods won 14 major championships in 46 starts as well as 15 World Golf Championship tournaments. His 30 percent winning rate in majors over that span of time is unprecedented, but he was also a much younger man.

Mickelson did not start winning majors until 2004, and his win last year at the Open Championship was his fifth major title. In 2010, Mickelson was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, which is an ongoing issue for him.

We are seeing the aging of golf’s superstars, and it is not a pretty sight.

Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Rory McIlroy are under the age of 30 and have won major championships. Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Harris English, Russell Henley and Jason Day have all won tour events within the past year and represent the new crop of talented young players on the PGA Tour.

The PGA Tour is awash with corporate sponsors wanting to spend millions of dollars to put their names on a golf tournament. That is a very good thing for golf fans and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, but it has lengthened the golf season, which places more demands on players and puts aging golfers at more risk.

Since Woods joined the PGA Tour in 1996, purse sizes have increased exponentially. The Players Championship and the PGA Championship will each offer a $10 million purse in 2014. First-place checks have also grown from $200,000 pre-Tiger to as much as $1.8 million today.

From the Open Championship in the middle of July, the schedule includes two majors, the WGC-Bridgestone and four FedEx Cup playoff tournaments in just a 10-week span. That is a lot of serious golf as well as wear and tear on any player.

A veteran golfer with a bad back, sore knees or arthritis is at a major disadvantage in these important tournaments.

The 42-tournament PGA Tour regular season now begins immediately after the finish of the FedEx Cup playoffs, with the six-tournament wraparound schedule running through November. It also comes with the additional stress of time spent in an airplane, as it requires international travel to Malaysia, China and Mexico.

Mickelson did play in two events last fall in the wraparound season, but Woods only played in his own Northwestern Mutual World Challenge in early December.

Steve Stricker’s announcement last year that he would curtail his schedule and limit his play has forced other players to reconsider their schedules as well. Woods has always scheduled his appearances around his sponsors’ tournaments and the majors. Mickelson is trying to cut his appearances, but he has found that he needs the competitive practice.

With half of the season completed before the first major championship of the year is contested at Augusta, the look and feel of the PGA Tour money list has changed dramatically.

The current FedEx Cup rankings, as well as team points lists for the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup, are also affected, with younger players assuming spots normally reserved for the big names.

Woods and Mickelson are facing the issue of the aging athlete squarely in the mirror. They have not taken shots to the head like boxers or football players do, but thousands of violent golf swings take a toll on knees, backs, shoulders and wrists.

There is no real break to the golf season, so the top players are forced to miss some high-paying tournaments to rest or recuperate from nagging injuries.

In addition to Woods and Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Jason Day and Justin Rose are dealing with injuries that are affecting their practice and playing time.

There is more money than ever before on the PGA Tour, but the severity of golf courses and the length of the golf season favor the younger, stronger player.

Gary Player and Woods made golfers understand the importance of being physically fit to compete at the highest levels.

In the past, golfers would not be expected to win major championships until they were well into their 30s. With Woods as their model, the youthful golfers of today are better trained and more physically fit than ever before. Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland are true athletes and would excel at various other sports.

Woods and Mickelson may be casualties of their own success. Their popularity is directly responsible for the huge success of the PGA Tour over the past 18 years.

They are the reason Fortune 500 companies rain down millions of corporate dollars on the tour. The season was lengthened to accommodate additional events, which were needed to meet demand.

Like Hogan, Nelson, Snead, Palmer, Player and Nicklaus, they are leaving the game in a much better place than when they began their careers.

Will Mickelson and Woods win major titles again?

Mickelson desperately wants a U.S. Open title to complete his career Grand Slam and erase the bad taste of six runner-up finishes in past U.S. Opens. Woods' latest surgery will definitely be a factor going forward, but my answer to that question is yes, probably.

Even if they don’t, they have left a lasting legacy in professional golf.

Hasn’t it been fun watching them?