Why Tiger Changed His Swing

Over dinner with friends we hadn’t seen in months, Susie asked with dismay, “Bill, why did Tiger change his swing?” Inherent in her question was her opinion that he shouldn’t have. The din of the restaurant made it too difficult to launch into a cogent discussion of her very complicated question. So I promised her that I would write this post.

The reason that Tiger’s swing change is so incomprehensible to most people is that they don’t realize that Tour players have blind spots in their swings just like the rest of us. They just have fewer of them. But you know they have them because of the variability in their results.

Martin Kaymer was supposed to be the next great player, The Germanator. Since his 2nd at the Accenture Match Play in February, he hasn’t moved the needle much. That he remains No. 3 in the world is a function as much of its two-year horizon than anything he’s done on the course lately. Paul Casey was all the rage towards the end of last year, but now, even though he’s still No. 12 in the world, you hardly hear his name. He’s missed the cut in his last three tournaments: Charlotte, The Players Championship and just now in the U.S. Open. And now we have the great Phil Mickelson lost in space. Gearing everything towards the U.S. Open, he could only manage to finish 7-over par and T54, when 20 of the guys who were “on “ finished under par. So the point is, not to pick on these guys, here you have three of the best and they’re having a tough time right now.

Make no mistake, Tour players have a much higher feel for their swings than amateurs because of all the reps they’ve built them with. But that doesn’t mean that they’re any more aware of just where the club is at the top of the swing or whether the clubface is opened or closed. It’s the reason almost all of them have swing coaches. It’s the reason they all pore over the video camera images trying to see what they can’t feel.

They still have very high discriminating sensations in their swings. But they also have worry over what’s going on at the margin. And those margins, the loose edges of the tent that let the bad shots in, are the thing they obsess over, the things they worry about if their mind strays on the first tee. So that’s what all the practice is about, filling in the voids.

So even if you’re Tiger Woods and you’ve had a very successful run with coach Butch Harmon and won 8 majors in 5 years, after a while you get the itch over why all the work you’ve done hasn’t filled in the blanks any better than it has. Or maybe there was one fatal move in your swing you and Butch worked incessantly on–getting the club stuck behind you, for example–but never quite “fixed.” So you get restless. And you start to become aware of other coaches. Mark O’Meara, Tiger’s Tour mentor in the beginning and friend through the years, has always worked with Hank Haney.

And so then it became Haney. Now the thing about moving on to a new coach is that the new stuff the coach puts in, not only makes intellectual sense to you, it begins to make kinesthetic sense to you as well. It begins to clear up some of the remaining mysteries from the previous guy. The swing begins to feel better and it seems easier once you get through the initial work. And you wonder why you waited so long. And Tiger and Haney had a good run together. They won six more majors.

But, in time the itch begins again. All the hope that began the relationship has faded into just some more blind spots that leave you feeling dissatisfied. You just can’t seem to break through to that sense of total knowing. For all the hours of work you put in on it every day, there should be more. You should know more. You should be able to become more independent or even self-guided. You should be able not only to fix yourself in mid-round, you should also be able to practice the need for a fix right out of existence. That’s one of the implied promises of a coach, right? “You’ll get to the point where you’ll be self-sufficient.”

That’s what happened to Graeme McDowell after he won the U.S. Open; he drifted away from his coach, Pete Cowan—probably due as much to his Champion’s duties as anything—and by the time The Players Championship was upon him the following May, he was cajoling him to hurry over to Orlando from England to spend three days with him and get things righted again.

In Tiger’s case, the end of the Haney relationship appears to have been a mutually arrived at decision. And with everything else going on in his life, Tiger probably thought a little self-sufficiency would be worth a try. But still the voids in his awareness were there.

Enter Sean Foley, the next great hope. Tiger had been aware of Foley through his practice rounds with the likes of Sean O’Hair, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan and the rest of Foley’s stable. He could listen in to what Foley was trying to convey to his charges…and presumably see, once again, the value of working with a partner.

And Foley was great for Tiger; he had a highly intellectualized theory of the swing and he seemed to always have his video camera close at hand. There are few things as narcotic in golf as being able to see a video of your swing. You can look to see all the voids, to get some answers to what you can’t quite feel…and some comfort because the video always looks much better than you thought it would. And the more you look at it, the more you can see.

So the reason for all of these changes is the same blindness we all experience, just at a higher level. The jury is still out on the Foley transition as much as anything because of Tiger’s debilitating injuries—a knee and an Achilles? Geez. But Tiger has invested ten months with Foley—minus injury timeouts—and speaks constantly of his commitment to the process. He thinks what he’s doing now feels better than what he had been doing. He claimed he’s now able to do things he hadn’t been able to do in a while.

Many critics think he should go back to Harmon because they think that’s the best his swing ever looked. But he’s still excited with what he’s doing now and in some ways, it would feel like going backward. There wouldn’t be anything fresh or new about it–one of the other reasons Tour players change coaches is the relentlessness of the pursuit. It takes so much. So it’s nice to have that breath of fresh air when every other reason lines up.

And maybe, if Harmon and Haney were indeed building blocks creating the foundation for the work he’s doing now, Tiger will finally be able to remove the last of the veil from his eyes.

That’s always the hope. That’s always the promise.

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