By Matthew Rudy
Tiger Woods -- and by extension, Sean Foley -- has a complicated problem.
How does Woods recover from a major back injury and build a swing that will not only keep him competitive at the elite level but also stay upright long enough to make a realistic run at Jack Nicklaus' major record? And then do it under the most intense microscope in the game?
Woods doesn't say much -- about anything -- and Foley is intentionally vague about their work.
That leaves everybody on the outside to fill the information vacuum with speculation about Woods and Foley are doing, or should be doing.
And fill it, they do. We asked a collection of top teachers to analyze Woods' post-surgery swing this week and offer their take on his technique. The challenges in front of the player were evident during a first round 74 in which he sprayed tee shots wildly both left and right. And judging by the range of teachers' responses, Woods isn't close.
Michael Jacobs uses roomful of sensors, force plates and 3D motion-capture cameras to help him teach at the X Golf School in Manorville, Long Island. He ran video of Woods' swings from 2000 and today through his collection of simulators and produced this series of overlays showing the differences in his position near, at, and after impact.
"The most obvious thing to see is that he has a tremendous forward lean with the shaft down through impact now," says Jacobs, who was the 2012 Metropolitan New York PGA Teacher of the Year. "The more that angle between the lead arm and club is increased, the more you're going to hit down on the arc, and the more you're going to skew the path to the right. With the driver, it's even more pronounced. That's why you're seeing him have to aim so far to the left and make a violent contortion with his body to try to shove the ball out to the right."
The blue figures represent Tiger Woods' swing in 2000, the yellow show his current swing. Woods' hands are noticeably more forward at impact, leaning the shaft toward the target. Swing image by Michael Jacobs
The forward shaft lean reduces the effective loft of the club and helps Woods produce more ball speed, but as the clubs get longer, it makes it more difficult for him to both launch the ball high and control his direction. With the driver or 3-wood, it manifests as a two-way miss -- a high block to the right or a pull hook. Woods hit some of each during his first round 74 at Valhalla -- back-to-back hooks with a driver and 3-wood on his 10th and 11th holes, and a block that missed 40 yards right of his target on his 16th. He hit eight fairways and 10 greens, and averaged 286 yards in driving distance.
"On iron shots, he still returns the club to impact pretty close to where he sets up," says top teacher Bernie Najar, who is based at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md. "But with the driver, he comes in with his hands much higher, and a lot of forward lean on the shaft. I haven't seen too many good drivers of the ball with that relationship.
"If you go back to 2000 -- whether it was what he was working on with Butch Harmon or a difference of opinion about what he should be working on now -- there wasn't that shaft lean," Najar says. "He used to move off the ball and load up on it. Some of what he does now is probably because of what he used to do. He could drive the handle some then because he was more behind the ball."
TrackMan plays a interesting role in this saga. Many of Foley's students use their measurements from the radar swing monitor as a kind of shorthand in conversations with Foley when he's offsite to get a problem straightened out. Woods has spent hundreds of hours hitting balls in front of Foley and the little gray box over the last four years.
"I'm sure he sees his numbers on TrackMan, and he's trying to zero out his swing path," says Top 50 teacher Brian Manzella, referring to the TrackMan measurement that indicates the club is coming through impact exactly square to the path. "If you're trying to zero out your path and you're hitting down on it like he does, you have to aim left to compensate. That's something that TrackMan doesn't show."
Najar agrees, saying that old-fashioned video would show how dramatically Woods' driver swing has diverged from his iron swing. "If you look at him from down the line, he looks like two different players," Najar says. "Some people argue that it doesn't matter, but Sergio brings it back the same way all the time, and he drives it pretty well. Tiger looks like he's trying to drive the ball into the ground."
What no teacher disputes is that it's impossible to make an iron-clad diagnosis without knowing the complete story about Woods' physical limitations or the specific things he's working on, and that Woods' demand for radio silence doesn't give Foley much of a chance to defend himself. One popular theory is that Foley's work has been limited by the requirement to preserve Woods' delicate back and knee. "That could be true, but my 84-year-old momma has never played golf in her life," Manzella says. "If you asked her to look at a video of Tiger's 2000 swing and his swing now and pick which one would be more likely to hurt him, I'll bet you a body part against $10,000 she'd pick the new one."
Golf Digest Top Young Teacher Chris Como knows first-hand how fragile the tour-player swing machinery is. He spends two weeks a month on the road with a half dozen pros. "It's easy to play armchair quarterback, but there are so many factors with Tiger's body and the history of his game we don't know," Como says. "Everybody has their idea of what they would want him to do, but it's a different story when you get in there and see what's going on. Without being inside, it's all just speculation."
Manzella says he's rooting for Woods and Foley to find consistent form. "Between playing bad and an injury to playing bad and being hurt now, he won five tournaments," Manzella says. "You don't ever count him out, and him playing good is good for all of us in the game.
"And it's not like Sean doesn't read, or doesn't talk to other teachers. I'm sure he would try anything he thought would work," Manzella says. "But if it's this time next year and Tiger still hasn't won a major, what is he going to do? He's probably going to try a different thing. That different thing could come from Sean, but it could also come from somebody else."