The Big Miss
After the initial joy of being asked to teach the greatest player in the world, Hank Haney worried that Tiger Woods' fascination with military training jeopardized his left knee and the attempt at breaking Jack Nicklaus' record
On March 8, 2004, I'm having dinner at Bob's Steak & Chop House in Plano, Texas, with my father, Jim, who's in town for the day. I rarely eat steak, but I order a New York strip, medium rare. The waiter has just brought us our food when my cellphone rings.
I've told my father I might be getting a call from Tiger sometime in the next few days but that I'm not really holding my breath. I don't have Tiger's number, but when I look down and see the 407 area code on my screen in front of a number I don't recognize, my stomach jumps. "Excuse me," I tell my dad, "I gotta take this call."
I walk quickly toward the entrance, and answer. "Hey, Hank," I hear on my cell, "this is Tiger." I give my normal, "Hey, Bud," greeting, but there's no small talk. Barely pausing, Tiger says, "Hank, I want to know if you'll help me with my golf game."
As I stand on the sidewalk watching the valet-parking guys running around and people going in and out of the adjoining shops, I feel disoriented. Everything around me is normal, but I know my life has just changed forever. I'm talking to Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer who's ever lived, and he's asking me to be his coach.
Because of Tiger's tone, I try to hide any excitement from my voice. "Sure, Tiger. Of course," I say, adding, "Thank you for the opportunity." Tiger stays all business, asking, "What do you think of my game?"
I kind of surprise myself with how easily I snap into professional mode. I don't say "Tiger, I think you have the best game of all time," which is what I believe. I realize he's a tour pro asking a tour teacher to measure him purely against his abilities. I say very straight, but aware of how odd it sounds, "I think your game is pretty good."
The next question isn't a surprise. "What do you think I need to do better?" I'm in my wheelhouse now, and I tell him exactly what I've observed in him for over a year. "Looking from the outside, and not knowing everything, it looks like you're working on a lot of great things," I say. "It looks like you know a lot about the swing. But it's hard for me to tell what your plan is. It doesn't look like you have a real step-by-step plan. I think when you're trying to improve, the most important thing is to always have a plan."
I leave it there, without going into specifics, and Tiger doesn't ask for any. I feel confident I've hit on the central issue. Certainly Tiger followed a plan with Butch Harmon early on, just as he followed a plan as an adolescent with John Anselmo. Indeed, I know that one of the stock responses Tiger's dad had whenever he was asked about Tiger's progress had long been, "It's all part of the plan." But it looks to me that since the end of Tiger's time with Butch -- who said his emphasis was maintaining the swing changes Tiger had made -- the plan has become less clear.
I know Tiger has a lot of knowledge about the golf swing, but a lot of players do. Sometimes that can make it even easier to become aimless, because an active and especially an impatient mind can lurch from idea to idea and go off on experimental tangents. Left on their own when practicing, talented players tend to go back to swing thoughts or feels or drills that have brought success in the past, and when one doesn't seem to work, they try another. The result is that the player is likely going in a circle, rather than working toward something. With this haphazard approach, it's very difficult for players to say at the end of a day of practice or play that they got better. With the right plan, even if things didn't go well, there is the confidence that improvement is taking place. That's what I believe Tiger needs, and I think -- recognizing that he's been in relative limbo for many months -- he's called me mainly to deal with this issue.
Our phone call lasts no more than three minutes. It ends with Tiger saying he wants me to come work with him at Isleworth. He doesn't follow with any small talk or pleasantries, so after a last quick thanks from me, we say goodbye.
After hanging up, I stand on the sidewalk stunned. Besides sheer amazement, my mind is filled with all sorts of thoughts. As a golf instructor, I feel as though I've won the lottery. I'm going to gain in stature. I'm going to be famous. I'm going to get to try out all my ideas on the ultimate student, and he's going to prove them so right. And then I think, I won't even have to tell him anything. This guy is going to win no matter what I tell him. He's done it all his life, he's so good. I've just landed the easiest job in golf.
After a long few minutes, I walk back into the restaurant. I tell my father I'm now Tiger's coach. It feels kind of funny, because my dad's the biggest Jack Nicklaus fan who ever lived, and I know he isn't going to want Tiger to break Jack's record of 18 professional major championships. He chuckles at that, and I can tell he's proud. But he also has a sense of the pressures ahead, and he says, "You know, that's going to be a hard job. Are you sure you want to do it?" I appreciate the question. But, yes, I'm sure. To be able to teach the best player -- that's always been my dream. I'm going to give Tiger as much as I've got for as long as I can. And somehow I already know he's going to be the last touring pro I teach.
PROTECTING TIGER'S KNEE
Tiger's swing situation and the changes required were complicated by three issues.
The first was his left knee, which had bothered him for years. Protecting Tiger's knee during the swing and still getting performance wasn't a simple thing. Although Tiger said Butch had encouraged him to "snap" his left knee at impact to gain distance, the move had another, more positive purpose. Basically, the fast and dramatic clearing of the hips that caused the hyperextension was a way to "hold off" club rotation and not hit a hook, even when Tiger's plane was slightly across the line. Hyperextending, or snapping his leg allowed Tiger to more easily hit a power fade with his driver, as well as control his irons with shots he knew had little chance of curving left. Essentially, snapping his knee allowed Tiger to eliminate one side of the golf course, a hallmark of great players from Hogan and Locke to Nicklaus and Trevino.