Stubborn Snedeker: Nine-time Tour winner returns after rare surgery that almost didn’t happen
DUBLIN, Ohio – Even for Brandt Snedeker – who has endured an outsized number of surgical procedures and medical setbacks in his career – the last eight months have pushed the boundaries of his professional resolve, not to mention modern medicine.
Every week on the PGA Tour the fitness trailers are crowded with players dealing with all manner of injuries but Snedeker’s return to action this week at the Memorial is, by definition, unprecedented.
The technical term for the surgery that returned Snedeker to Tour is Manubrium Joint Stabilization, but it’s nearly impossible to find any research on the procedure. That’s by design.
“He’s a genius,” Snedeker said of the surgeon who performed the procedure, “but he didn’t write any literature down the first time he performed the surgery because he didn’t want anyone to know he did it. He didn’t want to do it again.”
“He” is Dr. Burton Elrod, a Nashville, Tenn., orthopedic and sports medicine surgeon who made medical history in the early 2000s when he performed the procedure for the first and last time on the late Steve McNair. At the time, reports explained Elrod, the Tennessee Titans’ team physician, performed the surgery on the former quarterback to “strengthen [McNair’s] bruised chest,” but that’s an oversimplification.
At the time, the only option available for McNair was to use a plate attached with screws to his sternum to stabilize the bone. Elrod’s fear was the potential risk of infection that close to the heart and lungs could be fatal, so he devised a unique procedure using bone from McNair’s right hip which he inserted into an area of cartilage that exists in the sternum.
Although the surgery was considered a success, Elrod left no research and never performed the procedure again. Even when Snedeker approached him with the same instability in his sternum, Elrod was reluctant.
“I did one, and I don’t want to do another,” Elrod told Snedeker.
“I told him, ‘You have to do it. I don’t have a career otherwise,’” Snedeker said.
Even after talking Elrod into performing the procedure, it took Snedeker another three months before he was able to have the surgery.
“I had to have a bone transplant doctor in the operating room, I had to have a thoracic surgeon there. It took two months to get clearance from the hospital to even do it,” Snedeker said.
On Dec. 1, Snedeker had the surgery. It would be another four months before he would see “a light at the end of the tunnel.” Although his decision to have the surgery was driven by a potent combination of fear and resignation, the nine-time Tour winner admitted there were days early in the rehabilitation process when it was difficult to see a future in professional golf.
“The West Coast swing was tough because I love playing out there, and I was just post-surgery, five weeks out, and I couldn’t do anything. My chest was cut wide open and sternum was broken and put back together; I was still in some pain,” he said. “It was tough watching San Diego and Palm Springs and Sony Open, places I love playing, and I was so far from being there and so far from seeing a path back.”
The first six weeks following the surgery was difficult with the combination of hip immobility and a 6-inch scar in his chest limiting rehabilitation to the most basic exercises, but by “Week 8” he was able to start working out again.
“I did some stuff that normally would have caused some pain [before the surgery], twisting and turning and it didn’t hurt,” Snedeker said.
On April 1, Elrod cleared Snedeker to start hitting golf balls with “nothing more than a pitching wedge.”
“Of course, I pulled out a 9-iron and hit one,” Snedeker laughed. “I didn’t feel any pain, and I knew at that point that before the surgery I would have felt pain. I was like, OK, I think this worked.”
Snedeker slowly worked his way back into golf shape – at first hitting just 30 balls a day but steadily increasing his workload. By the time he worked his way up to hitting 5-irons he knew the surgery had been a success. “I’m good. I think we got it,” he said.
On Tuesday at Muirfield Village, with sweat dipping off the brim of his hat, Snedeker embraced the significance of playing Tour golf.
“I figured out two things during this time off: I’m way too young to retire, and I’m unemployable,” Snedeker laughed.
Despite the long layoff, Snedeker said he’s pleasantly surprised with his game but admitted there will likely be rust since his last Tour start was in September. Given his historic path back to the Tour, perspective was easily available.
“I’ve been managing it for years, can only hit so many golf balls, can only play so many days in a row, and then I’d have to shut it down. It’s nice to be able to go out there and put the work in,” he said. “It’s amazing. When you stop swinging in pain, all the bad tendencies I’ve had start to go away.”
The doubts and fear that haunted his last few years on Tour have also gone away thanks to a reluctant doctor with a groundbreaking surgery and an overwhelming desire to not take “no” for an answer.