While you were enjoying your eggnog and fruitcake this holiday season, Tiger Woods concerned himself with something most golfers can relate to: taking his practice swing to the course. After playing in the Hero World Challenge in December, his first tournament in 301 days, Tiger said he wasn’t getting the same distance off the tee that he was seeing in practice at his club, the Medalist in Hobe Sound, Fla. Woods admitted he was relying on a “tournament ball,” meaning a reliable driver swing that emphasized accuracy over distance. He repeatedly hit a gentle fade (the ball curving to the right) while playing in the event. Although pleased with his eight-under-par performance (tied for ninth), considering it came about eight months after spinal-fusion surgery, Woods says his driving needs to improve. To that point, he isn’t being bashful about asking his peers for help—especially about equipment.
“I’ve really talked to the guys; played golf with Rory [McIlroy], DJ [Dustin Johnson], and I ask them, ‘What are you doing?’—really picking their brains as we’re playing,” Woods told Golf Digest in December after displaying his swing for this article. “These guys are tournament tough. I hadn’t played in 10½ months, so it’s nice to pick guys’ brains who have been through the battles.”
Every instructor Golf Digest asked about the latest version of Tiger’s swing, including former coaches Hank Haney and Sean Foley, praised it for its effectiveness. Wanting to know more about it, we asked Jim McLean, one of the top-five instructors in America as ranked by his peers in Golf Digest, to tell us what he sees.
“If my math is right, this is the fifth major swing change we’ve seen from Tiger,” McLean says. “I’ve seen guys change, but not nearly as often or with as much success as Tiger. And this swing looks pretty good.”
As Tiger addresses the ball, you can see that he’s geared to hit up on it, says Golf Digest Teaching Professional Jim McLean. Tiger told Golf Digest he plays the ball off his front toe, “which is different than what you typically see from tour pros,” McLean says. “Most prefer to set up to the ball off the heel of their front foot. The farther forward you play it, the easier it is to hit up on it, which is the ideal way to maximize distance with a driver.”
Also of note is Tiger’s wide stance, with the shaft and his spine leaning away from the target—“all signs he’s going to launch it,” McLean says. "He’s setting up to give this ball a ride. It’s the look of a power hitter, not someone who just wants to put the ball in play."
Looking for something to copy? Stand tall like you see Tiger doing here. “If you want power, you can’t be all hunched over,” McLean says.
Renditions of Tiger’s swing before this one showed him taking the club back steeper and letting the club move more inside the target line and behind his chest. “His arms are out in front of him now; everything is turning back together,” McLean says. Taking the club back like this keeps it moving on a path that is shallow in relation to the ground (making it easier to catch it on the upswing) and at maximum width (for extra power).
“If you can stay wide, you’re going to get the most out of your drives,” McLean says.
AT THE TOP
“Tiger has moved off the ball—a few inches away from the target—by the time he finishes his backswing,” McLean says. “You wouldn’t have seen that a few years ago.” This lateral shift is reminiscent of his backswing as a young adult, McLean says: “It’s a power move, for sure, but it’s also good for someone with a back problem. There’s a lot less side-bending going on, so the bottom of his spine isn’t feeling extra pressure. I like this change. If you think about golfers who were great drivers, such as Nicklaus and Norman, they loaded up behind the ball instead of feeling like their body was over it.”
If you want to copy this move, don’t let your weight sway outside your back foot, or you’ll struggle with consistency, McLean says. Tiger prevents an overshift by keeping his right leg braced throughout the backswing.
"The club stops short of parallel, but look how far his left shoulder is behind the ball," says McLean. "That’s the turn of a healthy golfer. For a guy who’s had multiple back surgeries, this is an impressive move down. He’s still very aggressive."
Woods has long been known for squatting as he starts the downswing, using the ground as leverage for a forceful swing. But McLean says the dip isn’t as pronounced as it was in years past. More important, he does a terrific job of maintaining enough space for the club to sling into the ball.
“That’s the trick,” McLean says. “When you drop from your address posture like this, you have to be careful to not get the club trapped where it has no room to move into the ball. He does a great job of keeping it out in front of his torso, not blocked behind his body. He’s got a really fast arm swing now. It reminds me of Greg Norman’s in his prime."
Considering his mobility has been limited by a fourth back surgery that fused vertebrae, it’s unrealistic to think Woods can produce 320-yard drives doing it the way he used to. He’ll have to pick up swing speed somewhere else, and it appears he’s generating more power with his arms.
“It’s definitely more of an arm swing than it used to be. They’re moving so fast, the club even recoils against his back as he finishes,” McLean says.
And though the shaft might be leaning toward the target at this point in the downswing, a fraction of a second later it will be perpendicular to the ground.
“He’s releasing the club hard—really getting it out in front of him and catching the ball on the upswing. He’s not dragging the club through impact. He’s letting his right arm dictate the action.”
RELEASING THE CLUBHEAD
If you were to compare Tiger’s through-swing to Jordan Spieth’s, you’d see a noticeable difference in the position of their hands and arms.
“With Jordan, you’d see the left elbow still bent. Not Tiger. It’s straightening, and the club has released,” McLean says. “Jordan drags the club through, but Tiger is throwing it—meaning the type of motion you’d make if you were throwing a ball hard with your right hand. His chest is rotating toward the target, but not nearly as much in comparison to how his arms, hands and club have traveled by the time the club is parallel to the ground after impact.”
If the slice is your typical ball flight, this is the move to copy. Get that right hand over the left in the through-swing, McLean says.
Let’s face it: Lower-back problems are common to many golfers, not just the pros, McLean says. “Knowing that, you’ve got to do everything you can to protect your spine.” Copying the end of Tiger’s swing is a good idea. “It’s a great finish for a guy with a bad back. Look how upright he is. The right shoulder is higher than the left. And if you drew a line from his right ear to the inside of his left foot, it’s a straight line—there’s no reverse-C look to his spine. That means no extra pressure on the lumbar discs.”
As you get older, having this straight-and-balanced finish is going to add time to your playing career.
"Protecting his spine is more important than ever," says McLean. "That’s why Tiger is not bending back at the end of his swing."
“Let that club finish resting on your neck and shoulders,” McLean says. “Tiger is standing tall. Good to see he’s swinging like a champion again."