HugganMay 5, 2010

Effective Argument

An encouraging opening round for Tiger Woods is further evidence that criticism of his swing coach is off mark

Hank Haney has been vulnerable to criticism throughout his tenure working with Tiger Woods.

Hank Haney has been vulnerable to criticism throughout his tenure working with Tiger Woods.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- This is a story about Tiger Woods and his play during the opening round of the 2010 Players Championship. Well, sort of. Let's start -- bear with me -- by looking at Phil Mickelson and the tangible results of the professional relationship the world No. 2 enjoys with his full-swing coach, Butch Harmon.

When the pair got together just prior to the 2007 Players Championship here at Sawgrass, Mickelson was a long-hitting short game genius who routinely won four or five times a season, but was otherwise prone to inconsistency and more than the odd wild shot. Today, three years on, Mickelson is a long-hitting short game genius who routinely wins four or five times a season, but is otherwise prone to inconsistency and more than the odd wild shot.

This glaringly obvious sameness does not, of course, make Harmon a bad teacher. Real change needs both enough time and complete cooperation from the student to fully bed in. The suspicion here is that Mickelson made the required commitment -- at least initially -- but has proven to be temperamentally unsuited to any long-term tweaks Harmon has attempted to introduce. As evidenced by the cavalier way in which he won the Masters last month, Phil is not a golfer who frets over his "fairways-hit" ranking or who pines for a shorter swing and greater consistency. He is what he is -- enormously entertaining -- and more power to him for that.

But here is the wider point: contrast the almost universal indifference the golfing world has displayed towards Harmon's "failings" regarding Mickelson with the almost universal revulsion the golfing world routinely displays for another swing coach, Hank Haney, whenever his star pupil, the aforementioned Woods, hits anything other than a perfect shot. It is marked indeed.

Haney , for whatever reason, is apparently fair game, with the most recent public criticism coming from NBC commentator Johnny Miller. The two-time major champion apparently feels that Tiger -- who, based on Grand Slam victories, is seven times the player Miller ever was -- should immediately jettison his coach and return to the "Harmon swing" that won three of golf's four biggest titles a decade ago.

"Tiger needs a new, fresh, either teacher or just go back to what is natural to his game," said Miller. "What he is working on now, I believe is, no disrespect for Hank Haney, but it is not working. And sometimes when it is not working, sometimes you have to get off the fork in the road and get back to what brung you there and what won all these championships for him."

Now, just so we are clear, Miller has a point if all that matters is the Tiger currently on display in what is his thirteenth Players appearance. That Tiger on whole is not playing well. He isn't swinging well. And, unlike the putting machine we witnessed back in 2000, he isn't rolling his rock all that great, either. But, as Miller should surely know, overreacting to a particular moment or swing or shot or round is hardly a sound basis for reasoned analysis. A longer-term view is required. Both Woods and Haney deserve nothing less, even if they are unlikely to ever enjoy the overt and blatant bias with which so many view the Mickelson/Harmon combination.

Indeed, as Haney himself pointed out this week, in the last two and a half years, Tiger has won 44 percent of tournaments and has recorded top-three finishes in 61 percent of his starts. In the two and a half years before the pair began working together, those numbers were 24 and 43. In other words, relative to his competition, Woods is a better player today than he was when Harmon was standing behind him on the range.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have co-authored three books with Haney and have known him for more than two decades. But the sentiment that he deserves a better shake has little to do with my endorsing any specific swing theories -- I've written books with other teachers as well -- and a lot more to do with basic fairness.

More important is the current state of the Woods psyche. The man would be less than human were he to be unaffected by all that has gone on and on and on in his life over the last six months.

"I seriously doubt that if the things outside of golf hadn't changed so drastically for Tiger, then my teaching wouldn't be coming into question right now," Haney continued in an e-mail. "Last year Tiger played in 19 tournaments. He won seven of those and finished in the top 10 17 times. He has gone through a lot recently but I am confident that he will return to form given some time."

That seems reasonable. And history, in fact, supports Haney's view. A couple of examples: in the more than three years between Jack Nicklaus' 1967 U.S. Open win and his victory in the Open at St. Andrews in 1970, no one was calling for the head of Jack Grout, the man who oversaw the overly-upright method -- flying right elbow and all -- that took his pupil to 18 major wins. And when Greg Norman was throwing away major championships like confetti, his coach remained strangely untouched by criticism. Who was that guy again? Oh yes, Butch Harmon.

So let's be clear. The undeniable fact that Tiger Woods is not, right this minute, swinging the club in a way designed to put a smile on either his or Haney's face does not necessarily invalidate the teachings of golf's most-maligned coach. What it means is that both have much work to do and that, next time an uninformed media hack decides to take a pop they should perhaps exchange "Haney" for "Harmon" in their text. Then at least we'd have some consistency in the analysis.

Oh, by the way, Tiger shot a two-under par 70 in the first round at Sawgrass. He hit nine of 14 fairways in regulation, 14 greens, made three birdies, a lone bogey at the last and hit a wide variety of shots ranging from terrible -- seventh tee, twelfth tee, eighteenth tee -- to brilliant -- eighth tee, ninth fairway, 17th tee. Told you I'd get round to all of that eventually.