As Tiger Woods continued his Magical Mystery Tour of swing changes, he said something very interesting after his so-so round yesterday. He was talking about the trouble he was having staying “committed” to his new swing:
“Even if I have to hit creative shots out of the trees, I still have to do it according to the new framework. I’ve been through this process before so I understand it. I’ve just got to be patient.”
And he spoke about how the changes have infected his short game:
“I’m kind of caught right between takeaways, and I hit some bad shots around the greens because of it. It’ll come around, just need more time, more practice.”
And then he explained the organic nature of a complete golf game:
“When I went through the changes with Butch and Hank and now with Sean, I went through stretches where I didn’t chip the ball well or putt well because there’s only so much time you have to spend. I’ve been working hard on my full swing. It’s coming around, but certainly my short game is not where it needs to be.”
People might not appreciate just how much is involved in maintaining a high-level golf game. It truly is an organic creation:
Organic: characterized by the systematic arrangement of parts; organized; systematic: elements fitting together into a unified, organic whole.
When I was chasing the tour, I worked on my game six to eight hours a day. On practice days, I would spend up to an hour on putting; long lag putts with three balls and then straight, uphill, six-foot putts. The lag putts to get “flow” in my stroke and to get the speed of the greens and the six-footers to be able to pay attention to the micro movements of a slower moving putter.
I never practiced breaking putts because that’s in the domain of the art of putting; I practiced those while I was playing on the course. I only practiced straight putts because I wanted to be able to feel a free-flowing stroke going to the hole. In my experience, being able to routinize that stroke made it portable; I could apply it to any putting line, including big-breaking, downhill, four-footers on fast greens where you can’t even breathe they’re so delicate. With a routinized stroke that you don’t situationally manipulate, you can make anything.
Moving on to the short game, the same philosophy applied: I began with the big motions first. I would always start—and spend the most time—by hitting big, towering lob shots to tight pins that simulated a shot I would have to hit over a bunker. Hitting from rough that reduced spin on the ball, the idea was to get the ball to come down as straight as possible and the only way to do that was to hit it as high and with as fast a clubhead as you could. Practicing these gave a swashbuckling character to my short game; reticence won’t work. From there I would hit more routine pitch shots that flew lower or further…but there was still swashbuckling in them.
Then on to bunker shots with the same principles; long ones first, finesse ones once the flow was going…for half an hour to forty-five minutes or much longer if I was particularly working on them. Much longer than forty-five minutes and your brain fries if you are hitting each shot with full-functioning awareness.
Then on to chip shots, the shots that spend more time running on the green like a putt than they do in the air. And the same principles; long ones first and then short ones so delicate you almost had to drop the club after impact to take something off of them. You would rarely hit them in competition, but you always knew that you could. And always paying attention to impact because (1) that’s the baseline required to discriminate between shots and (2) the chipping motion at impact is a microcosm of the full swing, much more so than the other shots where you may have a cutting motion through the ball.
Then on to the full swing. Always starting with the sand wedge to a 90 to 100 yard pin because it is two swing weights heavier than the other clubs and allows you to feel the clubhead better and faster. Then a short iron. Then a middle iron. Then a long iron. Then a wood. Then the driver. On playing days, throttle back down with lob wedges to 40 to 50 yard targets without knowing the yardage first. This reinforced instinctively hitting a shot to a target: see the shot, hit it there. Afterward I would check the yardage to calibrate my feel for the day if I couldn’t get it close because I’d somehow misjudged the yardage.
On full swing practice, the sand wedge got the most time and the driver, the least on playing days but much more time on practice days. A playing warm-up would be an hour; practice would be hours, of course. Because you were are in playing condition, physical limitations weren’t so much the constraint, it was how long could you mindfully pay attention to each swing.
Maintaining a high level golf game is organic because, for all its comprehensive, coordinated, high-speed, physical motions, it is as delicate as a flower. Knowledge of the golf swing is very important; it’s the foundation. But true mastery comes not from knowledge, but from repetitively feeling what your brain knows. It’s all about the “reps.”
When you know this, you can see just how amazing it is that Tiger can play at this level at all. With all the tumult in his private life and his emphasis on his swing change, he hasn’t been able to tend to his garden.