Tiger Woods: Swing bound

Tiger Woods had another catastrophic day of golf, this time in the first round of the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. He shot 10-over 80, quite a disappointment in the face of all of his certain improvement at home. Since the same thing happened to me 132 times in my 9-year effort to qualify for the Champions Tour, I know more than a little about how it can all go wrong, about how he feels:

Not very happy, that’s for sure. It was a tough day. Got off to a bad start. I stuck that 6-iron in the ground on the first hole, and then just couldn’t quite get it turned around today.

The problem is that there are no consequences to bad shots at home, so there is no competitive, impervious mindset being built up. There is only the freewheeling swings that rarely seem to go wrong, swings that buoy your confidence…as long as the next tournament is out in the distance. 

But in a competitive situation where everything matters, the tendency is to make sure that everything goes okay, that the overall swing concept is hovering in your consciousness, and if you get a little too meticulous, that you’re hitting your various swing checkpoints. Sometimes you become a little too invested in one aspect of your swing to the detriment of the others. And slowly but surely, instead of having this sort of patrician, high-level consciousness where you’re in you’re own little playing cocoon, the outside world begins to intrude.

It begins by wondering if you can take the day’s swing construct from the range to the tee. I remember so many times being worried about that first tee shot rather than inspired by the construct. That creeping doubt breeds reticence as you make your way to the first tee, to the moment of truth. Which breeds tension. Not good basics for a freewheeling golf swing.

I don’t every remember being so nervous that any of my limbs were shaking. I do remember a vague tingling across my chest and sometimes into my arms almost to the point of not feeling as strong as the conditioning to which I had trained my body. Sitting here now writing this, I can remember that feeling creeping up over my shoulders and settling high in the center of my back. Most times I wouldn’t notice it per se, it just created a body sensation that was “distracting.”

And because of that lack of awareness of the tingle creep, I was also not aware that my range of motion had been reduced ever so slightly. Doesn’t seem like that would have much impact on your ability to play, but I found my swing growing imperceptibly shorter to any outsider’s view while my sense of it was that it wasn’t free. When you know it isn’t free, you begin to short-arm it in an effort to keep it under control, blind to the fact that your swing speed is slowing down.

So as your swing speed slows down, your body jumps in to assist rather than acting as the foundation for the swing. Under pressure, Tiger is now habitually adding an up and down lunge with his head, presumably to throw his body weight into the hurling of the clubhead. On shorter wedge shots — where he’s not trying to hit it a long way — his head doesn’t bob, it stays steady and his body makes a nice turn through the ball.

So now you have all of these embellishments and compensations added to the free swing that gave you such confidence and you feel compelled to be in control of it rather than allowing it to happen by feel. It’s a lack of trust.

The consequences of that are some of the things we saw in Tiger’s swings today, principally that he was missing everything right in the early going. For me, that happens because I’ve gotten so imperceptibly tight I can’t release the club. My arms slow down in order to be in control of the club and I don’t finish. Instead of an accelerating beast, I get a coasting, three-quarters swing, the face still open through impact and everything cutting to the right. It takes courage to freewheel it through impact to a complete finish when you’re nervous. That’s why they pay those who have that courage, that certitude, the big bucks. They’re the ones who can hit the glorious shots.

The telltale shot of how far afield — no irony intended — Tiger’s confidence had gotten was the 3-wood he tried to hit into the par-5 18th on his second shot. He stone-cold topped it. It was hard to tell, but it seemed to skitter through the rough on the far side of the fairway bunker right in front of him and then on up the middle of the fairway were it was sucked into the deep crossing bunker short of the green.

Sometimes when you can feel it falling apart, you try to swing more assertively…which is not free. And sometimes assertive becomes quick. That could have been the case on the 3-wood.

It’s one of those things, just got to work through it. I’m trying as hard as I can to do it, and for some reason I just can’t get the consistency that I’d like to have out there.

But there still doesn’t seem to be any doubt on his part that he can. In fact, in the abstract, he still feels quite confident:

Yeah, I am, I am. I know when I do it right, it’s so easy. It just feels easy to control, easy to do it, easy to hit all my shots. I just need to do it more often and build from there.

His “building” needs to be less about the swing moves themselves and more about the art of moving from the abstract in competitive settings.

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