Vision Correction and Sports

by David A. Wallace MD

The history of visual success stories involving athletes, pro and otherwise, in almost every sport is now widespread. We present here a brief overview of some representative examples. The list is very long and continues to grow. In the current era, almost every pro team has a regular team physician and an ophthalmologist on the roster; most of the eye doctors specialize in laser vision correction.

Golf: Tiger Woods, Tom Kuyt and many others have had laser vision correction. Tiger's experience was a virtual fairy-tale infomercial for this procedure: He was quite nearsighted; had LASIK in about August of 1997; and then won the next six consecutive PGA tour events he entered. At the time, he was quoted as saying, "the cup looks bigger now." Tiger subsequently became a national spokesperson for TLC Laser Eye Centers, one of the largest and highest-quality networks of laser treatment in North America. Other pro golfers including Scott Hoch, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, and Mike Weir have hit the 20/15 mark after having LASIK. Kite had LASIK in 1998 and won six events on the Champions Tour over the next five years. Three months after his surgery, Irwin captured the Senior PGA Tour Nationwide Championship. Also on the senior tour, Gary Player chose to have ReZoom multifocal lenses implanted so that he could enjoy clear distance and near vision, without the need for either reading or distance glasses. Pro golfers seek "to optimize any competitive advantage," a LASIK surgeon told the Los Angeles Times. "They're already tuned in to the best clubs, the best putter, the best ball. ... Clearly having great vision is one of the best competitive advantages you can have."

Baseball: In 2000, four-time Cy young Award-winner Greg Maddux (then pitching for the Atlanta Braves) had LASIK. As the story goes, he chose to have treatment during the regular season, on a Monday; then went out that Wednesday and pitched a 1-hitter. Prior to treatment he had been 0 - 3 in six starts that season; after treatment he won nine of his next 10 games. Quite a testimonial for both excellent visual recovery and zero down-time. Other players choosing to have LASIK and publicly discuss their experience have included Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Cirillo, Jeff Conine, Jose Cruz Jr., Wally Joyner, Mark Redman, and Larry Walker. Most states think you're fine to drive a car without corrective lenses as long as your eyesight is better than 20/40. Cirillo, then a third baseman for the Seattle Mariners, was 20/35 in one eye and 20/30 in the other when he went in for LASIK several years ago. He came out 20/20 and 20/12. Cruz, an outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, was 20/30 when he went for an eye exam. Five days later, he was under the beam. He came out 20/15. Some athletes think they would benefit from this treatment but turn out not to need it: According to the Orange County Register, Gary Sheffield, then an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had eyesight better than 20/20 when he asked for laser surgery to raise his batting average. His doctor talked him out of it. Why risk surgery for such small increments? "Every little half-centimeter counts," Cruz told the Star. Last year, the Seattle Times reported that Troy Glaus, a power hitter for the Anaheim Angels, had gotten LASIK because he "felt his contacts were sufficient, just not always ideal. A windy day or a wave of dust could tip the advantage back to the pitcher." Often, coaches play a role. The Minnesota Twins training staff successfully encouraged several players to get LASIK. Maddux told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution that the Braves gave him "a little push" to get LASIK.

Football: NFL players Troy Aikman, Ray Buchanan, Tiki Barber, Wayne Chrebet, and Danny Kanell have publicly acknowledged having LASIK. These are just some of the athletes who have disclosed their results in the last five years. Nobody knows how many others have gotten the same result. One laser specialist who serves as a team physician for the Oakland Raiders has privately mentioned performing LASIK on over 100 NFL players.

Basketball: NBA stars Amare Stoudemire and Rip Hamilton have done it, along with former LA Lakers Rick Fox and Kurt Rambis among dozens of others.

Martial Arts and Boxing: Contact sports are perhaps one of the areas where there is some controversy among professionals regarding this type of care. There are professional differences of opinion regarding appropriateness of LASIK in pro boxers and those who participate in martial arts at a competitive level. Some surgeons feel better about recommending PRK or other forms of surface treatment, while others are comfortable supporting interest in LASIK.