What's Ahead For Tiger Woods?
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There is no more vocal critic of the work of Foley, and by extension Woods, than Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, though even he softened his comments as the 2012 season wore on and Woods continued winning.
"Yes, I'll give Sean Foley his due," Chamblee says. "He teaches a very pretty, efficient golf swing, but it's not imaginative and it's not versatile. I'm amazed at Tiger's ability to incorporate three drastically different golf swings and bring them to some level of excellence. Nobody's ever done that in golf. Ever. This guy's changed his golf swing three, some people would say four, times and each time he's come back and been the No. 1 player. But he hasn't done that yet with this swing. Tiger, doing what he's doing now, will never get anywhere near as good as he was in 2005-6-7-8 or 9 and he won't sniff getting as good as he was in 2000. I used to say Tiger half as good as he used to be is still twice as good as anybody but that, as it turns out, is wrong because I didn't imagine somebody coming along as talented as Rory.
"People get addicted to the science of it, the perfection of it," says Chamblee. "Does Sean have good information? No question. They talk about total driving a lot. The things that make you a great driver of the golf ball now don't help you in terms of playing good golf. Now the players who drive it the best are these guys with flatter golf swings. Their shots coming into the green are flatter. Their left wrist is more bowed. They hit fewer greens. They're not as good with their short irons. They're not as good out of the rough."
Chamblee may be Foley and Tiger's most vocal critic, but Hank Haney remains just off stage in the wings. "When you look at the statistics, there are some holes in Tiger's game," Haney says. "Controlling his distance is clearly an issue. His sand game is relatively weaker. He hit more fairways last year than the year before, but he did it at the expense of distance, hitting more irons and 3-woods off the tee. More importantly, he is missing the occasional short putt that he never seemed to miss before," adds Haney, a big believer in "you are what your record says you are.
"The record says in the last three years Tiger's won three tournaments," notes Haney. "He may win 12 more tournaments and five of them may be majors, but that's unlikely. Tiger needs to start winning lots of tournaments like he used to, and the majors will come."
As tough as winning is, tilting at milestones is tougher. "Every year gets more important," says Haney. "Jack won his last majors in what was essentially a historical vacuum. That is a totally different dynamic than trying to catch someone's total. The next major Tiger wins is going to be the easiest. The one to tie and then the one to beat Nicklaus' record, those would be the toughest ones."
Woods' 2012 statistics are instructive. He was sixth in total driving and largely top 10 from outside 150 yards. By year's end his scrambling had improved too. "I'm chipping and putting better," Woods said at the Tour Championship. "I'm going for the same amount of par 5s, but my short game's better, hence my conversion has been a lot better, basically from the British Open on." But, in greens in regulation from 75-100 yards he was 140th; just 100th from 100-125; and 111th from 125-150. Controlling the distance with his wedges, eliminating "the shockers," as Foley calls them, that flew 10 or 20 yards straight over the pin and that Woods alluded to on an open mic during his China exhibition with McIlroy -- "I've been hitting my short irons so [expletive] far," he said -- is priority No. 1 for 2013, something they believe can be addressed mostly in Woods' setup.
Unlike Chamblee, Butch Harmon doesn't see Woods trapped in a box canyon. "I think he's come a long ways," says the man who oversaw the first overhaul after the '97 Masters. "He's still a little one-dimensional. I think he feels more comfortable with the changes that he's made, which will give him confidence, which is the main thing, really. I think he's there. He hasn't played as well as he would like to on the weekends after he put himself in position, but I think that's coming. It's looking pretty good, to be honest with you."
After watching Woods warm up on the practice ground at East Lake, NBC's Johnny Miller turned away and said, "If he improves at all, he'll be right back where he was."
Knowing where he is, would Woods himself have taken that deal when he and Foley hooked up on the practice ground at Whistling Straits in 2010? "No," says Tiger, "because I would hope that I could be healthier than I have been through those three years. At the time I didn't think that I would have the trouble I did. We didn't really do much work for the first year and half."
Outside the drama of Woods' fall from grace, the most consistent criticism of the player is that he's the only one of golf's hypergiants who didn't "own" his swing. But, if nothing else, he's rented three pretty good ones. With no disrespect to Foley or the rest of the instructors who've comprised Tiger's fraternity of wizards, his golf talent may just be so immense that even if Rube Goldberg had been his swing coach, he'd figure a way to make it work. He's at 14 majors today, and there probably isn't a teacher in America who could have kept him from winning 12.
Perhaps the loss to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine signaled the arc of Woods' career had reached a natural plateau. The putts that once had eyes only for the cup began looking elsewhere. "We all know it only gets tougher as we get older," says Mark O'Meara, once Woods' Isleworth buddy who found rejuvenation in his own career playing with a youthful Tiger. In his book My Story, written with Ken Bowden, Nicklaus says 1978 (when he was a year older than Woods is now) marked the end of his ability to win on talent alone and that 1980 was the last season he could consider himself the man to beat. Reflecting on that passage now, Jack says, "I can say that during my career I never, ever walked on the first tee and thought I was the man to beat. I always felt like I had to go play my best when I played. While if I had some talent, if I misused that talent, it wouldn't come out and it wouldn't produce anything. In 1979, when I was 39, I had a terrible year. I lost a lot of my ability to do what I wanted to do. Between the 1979 and '80 seasons, I took close to six months off. When I started back with Jack Grout, I wanted to make sure that I had most of my bad habits out of the way. I started over and we made some changes. I had a breakout at Baltusrol and that continued through Oak Hill at the PGA Championship. After that, for some reason, I lost a lot of my desire to go to work. Why, I don't know. I still liked to play golf, I still wanted to compete, but I wasn't willing to spend the time necessary."