Tiger is longer than ever, but his misses are going farther off line.
Excerpted with permission from The Pro: Lessons from My Father About Golf and Life, by Claude (Butch) Harmon Jr., with Steve Eubanks, Crown Publishers, New York. Copyright © 2006 by Claude (Butch) Harmon Jr. All rights reserved.
I've talked extensively about the changes made to Tiger Woods' swing after his 1997 Masters victory. What I haven't discussed, until now, are the changes I see in Tiger's swing since he and I stopped working together in 2003.
I believe he can win swinging the club a lot of different ways. If you told him he had to swing with a couple of loops in his backswing, Tiger would figure out a way to get it done and win. His talent is such that he can win when he's swinging well, when he's swinging not so well, and when his swing is in transition. He's the most coordinated and naturally gifted athlete in our sport. He's also very much like Jack Nicklaus, in that he figures out a way to win even when his game isn't all there. If he's spraying his tee shots, he figures out a way to recover from the rough and make enough birdies to win. If he's missing greens, he figures out how to hole it from the fringe or the bunkers. If he's not putting well, he just hits it closer. Whatever it takes to shoot the lowest number, Tiger figures it out. He's the best since Nicklaus at keeping himself in the game even when he doesn't have his best stuff.
One of the reasons I believe Tiger felt he needed to change his swing was to increase his driving distance. When he first turned pro, Tiger drove it past everybody by a healthy margin. Davis Love III and John Daly were close, but no one consistently hit it as far and in as many fairways as did Tiger. When he needed to blast it past an opponent, he had that ability. Then, in about 2001, players started catching up with him. Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh all started hitting the ball close to, if not as long as, Tiger, and occasionally those players and others hit it by him. He never admitted it, but I believe that bothered him. He knew he generated more clubhead speed than anyone else out there, and he had gotten even faster since he'd started working out in his mid-20s, so being challenged off the tee was not something that was supposed to happen. When it did, I think he decided he needed to make some changes.
I believe that Tiger's perceived loss of distance (or the fact that the rest of the tour started catching up to him in the distance category) had more to do with his equipment than his golf swing. He insisted on staying with a 43 3/4-inch steel-shafted driver with a smaller head, while his fellow-competitors were playing 45-inch graphite shafts and jumbo titanium heads.
It's hard to question Tiger's reluctance to make a dramatic equipment change. He was the best player in the world. Tossing your driver when you're playing great is a tough thing to do. There were plenty of graphite shafts Tiger could have hit, but he took a cautious approach to change. No one can fault him for that decision. But I think overhauling his golf swing was a mistake when putting a new driver in the bag would have done the trick.
A novice can look at Tiger's swing today compared to his incredible run in 2000 and tell that there's a difference. What most amateurs can't recognize is exactly where the swings differ, and why. The main difference between Tiger's old swing and his new one is the plane on which the club travels.
In Tiger's case, swing plane is critical because his swing speed is at least 50 percent greater than that of the average amateur. A tenth of a degree variance in the position of his clubface or the path of the swing at impact can mean the difference between finding the fairway and having to yell "Fore right!" When we worked together, I believed the best way for Tiger to control his distance and direction was for him to keep the club moving square to the target line for as long as possible. This required a more vertical swing plane, where the club stayed in front of his chest and his right elbow never got behind his body, and a backswing where the club rarely reached parallel.
Today, Tiger's swing plane is about 20 degrees more horizontal than it was when we were working together. By putting the club on this slightly flatter plane and making his swing longer than it was in 2000 and 2001, Tiger hits the ball farther now than at any other time in his life. He can also spray the driver much farther off line than he ever did during his record-setting run. If you look closely at Tiger's swing then and now, you can see that there is more power in today's motion, but the opportunity for error is also greater.
By getting the club on the slightly rounder plane, Tiger has, on occasion, worked the club down toward the ball rather than out toward the target. When this happens, his head dips, the clubface never squares up and the ball goes a zillion miles right of the target. You don't have to hit more than one or two of those wide-right foul balls before you start overcompensating to correct, and you pull a couple of shots. Now, as Tiger gets more comfortable, those errors happen less often, and he wins the way he won in 1997, 1999 and 2000, by overpowering the field. When you hit a 9-iron or wedge into every par 4 and hit every par 5 in two, the game is a lot easier than if you're trying to work 3-, 4- or 5-irons close to the pins. Tiger's new swing affords him the luxury of missing a few fairways because he's so long; he often hits it past bunkers or beyond the hazards that ensnarl humans of normal ability. He hits it so long and makes so many birdies that it's easy for him to say, "So what if I hit one 50 yards off line."
I disagree with that philosophy. I think it's better to be a little shorter and in the middle of the fairway than long and in the rough, but that's not news to Tiger. Ben Hogan taught that lesson to my father, and my father taught it to me: You can control your approach from the fairway, even if you're a little farther away from the hole. Tiger and I had this discussion many times, and we chose to disagree. I'm not the one hitting the shots, so his opinion is the only one that counts. And he continues to hit some awfully good golf shots.
So is Tiger's old swing better than his new one? Was I right? Or has his current success proved that he was right and I was wrong? I think the answers are: no, no and no. The new swing is no better or worse than the old one; it's simply different. Tiger played great with the swing we built, and he's playing great with the one he's built in the last few years. That's the way golf works. Neither of us was right or wrong; we simply approached the same objective from different angles.
In the end, all that matters are the numbers on the scoreboard. And as long as Tiger Woods continues to post lower numbers than the other players in the game, he'll continue to be the No. 1 golfer in the world and an athlete for the ages.