By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Tiger Woods could be sidelined from competitive golf for at least three months after undergoing back surgery, casting doubt over his participation in the June 12-15 U.S. Open, say several leading sports surgeons.
The world number one, whose back pain surfaced last year and intensified this season, will miss the Masters next week for the first time in his career after being advised by his doctors on Monday to have a microdiscectomy in Park City, Utah.
Woods, whose back problems forced him to retire from last month's Honda Classic before he skipped the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his traditional Masters warm-up event, has been told by his doctors that he will miss "several upcoming tournaments" during his rehabilitation.
His surgery involved the removal of herniated disc material that pressed on a nerve root or the spinal cord.
"In general, it takes six weeks for the soft tissues to heal, even from the microdiscectomy surgery," Michael Leighton, a surgeon at the Palm Beach Orthopaedic Institute in Florida, told Reuters by telephone on Friday.
"Tiger certainly can be working his short game sooner than that, probably after three or four weeks at the latest.
"But it will take him six weeks before he is ready to start swinging a club with his usual ability. He will probably be ready to play somewhere around three months after his surgery."
An absence from competition of that length would rule Woods out of the year's second major, the U.S. Open to be played at Pinehurst, North Carolina in mid-June.
David Geier, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist based in Charleston, South Carolina, predicted that Woods could be out of competitive golf for up to four months.
"You never know for sure how it will take, and sometimes it depends on how long the pressure on the nerve lasted," said Geier who like Leighton has also not worked with Woods.
"It depends on exactly what he had done but if it was just a single-level, herniated disc where there was just one disc causing pressure on the nerve roots and there were no other issues, I would say he will be out for three to four months.
"Some of that, of course, will depend on how quickly he gets his strength back and how quickly his pain goes away."
While recovery times differ for individuals based on many physiological factors, neurosurgeon Charles Rich, who operated on Woods, has said the 14-times major champion will begin intensive rehabilitation within a week.
Following further assessment, Woods could begin chipping and putting in three weeks with the aim of returning to competition "sometime this summer", according to Rich.
"Chipping and putting do not require much twisting, so this is possible," Selene Parekh, an associate professor of surgery in the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery at Duke University, told Reuters.
"However full swings will not be possible until his back muscles and core muscles have been strengthened and that can take between six and 10 weeks. Overall, I think he will be out of competition for four to six months."
Woods's lengthy history of injury began with a troublesome left knee, first operated on when he was a freshman at Stanford University in 1994. Three more operations on that knee have followed.
He has also suffered injuries to his ankle and neck, his right and left Achilles tendons and fractures in his leg, which he defiantly played through on the way to victory at the 2008 U.S. Open after a 19-hole playoff against Rocco Mediate.
Though Woods has missed two British Opens, one U.S. Open and one PGA Championship since 2008 because of injuries, surgeons believe that his long-term prognosis looks relatively bright.
"Tiger took the long-term view of where he is going to be by having the spine surgery now," Leighton said. "He will be over that and all the other injuries are now really behind him.
"He has had a successful ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) construction, he has had a successful Achilles (surgery) and the other injuries are things he has worked out from a therapy and training perspective.
"The main issue for him aged 38 is that he is still battling against guys who are 23, 24, 25 who are chasing the dream. Those guys are in good shape and they have the skills that do start to compare with where Tiger is, or was."
Woods, who triumphed five times on the PGA Tour in 2013 but failed to play his best at the majors, has not clinched a grand slam title since his playoff win at the 2008 U.S. Open.
He has long targeted the record 18 majors piled up by his childhood idol Jack Nicklaus and must now deal with a bad back, the bane of many golfers who have suffered ailments from the game's repetitive twisting and torqueing pressure.
"A study came out showing that over 90 percent of athletes with microdiscectomy can return to their pre-injury, elite levels," Parekh said. "His long-term prognosis from the back is good."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Gene Cherry)