For a while now, we've thought of Tiger Woods as immune to golf.
Why wouldn't we? Sometimes he made winning major championships seem easy, as he did at the 1997 Masters and the 2000 U.S. and British Opens. Sometimes -- as with the bounce he received on the last playoff hole of the 2000 PGA -- he has been amazingly fortunate. But even when things were going against him, Woods' talent, technique and toughness let the legend grow.
Then in 2003, a year that seemed teed up for Woods, 27, to blow ahead of Jack Nicklaus' career pace for winning major championships -- the Golden Bear went 12 majors without winning one between the 1967 U.S. Open and the 1970 British Open -- Tiger's immunity ran out.
After winning at least one major in five of his previous six full professional seasons, Woods won none this year.
But what was truly shocking was the manner in which he lost. All told, he completed the Grand Slam events 18 over par for the year, by 11 strokes the highest cumulative total of his career.
It was like watching Superman zapped by kryptonite, triggering a backlash on all the Woodsian assumptions. The collective vision of Woods' road to a record 21 major victories has gone from a downhill straightaway to a grinding ascent along Alpine switchbacks.
The three nagging issues bedeviling the world No. 1 at the end of 2002 -- a damaged left knee, a more distant relationship with longtime teacher Butch Harmon and an inability to find a high-tech driver he likes -- remained largely unsettled throughout the 2003 major championships. Considering the mental and physical baggage Woods was carrying, his four PGA Tour victories and leading stroke average entering the last month of the season were remarkable.
Still, Woods' mystique was diminished as other players found they could not only outdrive him but often outplay him. There are more players than ever capable of winning majors, epitomized by Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel. The sophisticated marriage of ball, club and swing that makes virtually every pro "long enough" has mitigated the rise of a ruling class of power players. And a trend toward narrower major-championship setups, specifically designed to combat technology, put four control players in the winner's circle and fewer big bashers on the leader board.
THE SWING AND THE COACH
Any close observation of Woods this year would find him battling with his swing more than at any time since his celebrated retooling of 1998. Many of his swings featured a pronounced drop in his downswing and a slightly ungainly follow-through, the arms whipping through a fraction late. His misses went in both directions, and at times, Woods seemed confused.
"When I get over a shot, I'm comfortable, I know what I'm doing, and then I don't trust it," he said in late August. "I feel great over the shot, then as soon as I come down it's, Oh, no, don't hit it right. Something like that has been happening a lot, for some reason."
Some instructors, like Jim Hardy, view the reason as faulty technique. "Right now, it looks like hard work for Tiger," says Rudy Duran, who taught Woods from age 4 through 10. Says John Anselmo, who took over from Duran until Woods began his association with Butch Harmon when Tiger was 17: "I always taught Tiger to play within himself, which means swinging through the body and not through the hands. He hasn't been playing within himself."
"He's definitely out of sync with his swing," says Nick Price. "Tiger's game is control and intelligent course management -- aggressive conservatism. But you can't do that driving the ball into the rough. Frankly, he hasn't played very well since he left Butch."
The saga of Woods and Harmon is a hotly murmured topic on the tour's practice ranges and in its locker rooms. What makes it all the more intriguing is that since Woods announced at the 2002 PGA that he and Harmon would no longer work together closely at majors, he hasn't won one after winning seven of the previous 12.
Woods downplays the situation, saying, "Oh, yeah, I'm still going to work with Butch. Just not as much." But Harmon is miffed. "I don't really understand what Tiger is doing with his swing, because I haven't spent much time with him lately," says Harmon, whose last extended session with Woods took place in Las Vegas before the U.S. Open. "I would always leave that option open, because we had a lot of success. It's his decision, and I wish him well. I just hope he's making the right one.
"There's no question Tiger understands his swing," Harmon says. "I haven't really taught him anything in a couple of years, but I've been his eyes to make sure he gets in the positions we've worked on."
It appears that Woods' most prominent eyes now belong to close friend Mark O'Meara. Considering that the two practice and play together frequently, it's not shocking that O'Meara, who has worked closely with coach Hank Haney, would have an influence on Woods' swing. The two often use video cameras to record each other, and it's not rare to see O'Meara demonstrating a move or holding the grip end of a club under Woods' chin as he swings. "Mark rubbing off on Tiger is nothing new," says one observer.
No one denies that O'Meara has helped Woods with all manner of shots from 125 yards in, as well as with strategy and course management. But O'Meara's ideas about full-swing technique don't always jibe with Harmon's, specifically on the path of the arms and the club during the backswing. Whereas Harmon would like Woods to take the club more upright and into a higher position, O'Meara favors an "out and around" move to the top. Woods does a drill in which he swings the club back almost parallel to the ground as if it were a baseball bat, a carbon copy of O'Meara's practice routine.
Those close to Woods are reluctant to speak for the record, aware that publicly commenting about matters he would prefer to keep private could jeopardize their relationship. O'Meara declined to elaborate on comments he made over the last year.
"You have to understand that Tiger knows a tremendous amount about the golf swing," O'Meara said. "He likes talking about it and hearing all kinds of ideas. Of course we do that. But at the end of the day, Butch is his coach. I'm his friend."
Meanwhile, observers familiar with the Woods-Harmon dynamic say their problems are rooted in personality, not swing theory. As a younger player, Woods seemed to enjoy exchanging good-natured barbs and banter on the practice tee with the extroverted Harmon, who has a natural affinity for the camera. But as Woods' inner circle has constricted, Rule One has been to avoid the limelight. Sometime before the PGA at Hazeltine, Woods decided that Harmon disturbed the almost ascetic stillness he seeks during competition, particularly at majors.
No one thinks the split is beyond repair. Their contract remains in effect, and they continue to keep up by phone. At the tour stop outside Boston in late August, they chanced upon each other near the practice range and engaged in a warm greeting. But a return to their previous working arrangement would likely require two things to occur. First, Woods would be implicitly admitting that he was misguided in thinking he could be his own coach -- a difficult concession for an admittedly stubborn character. Secondly, Harmon would have to curtail his commitment to an expanding stable of players including Fred Couples, Ben Crane, Justin Leonard, Darren Clarke and Adam Scott, all of whom have PGA Tour victories this year. "Just as a teacher, I'm having the best year of my life," says Harmon.
HOW KNEE SURGERY AFFECTED TIGER'S SWING
Woods' arthroscopic surgery last Dec. 12 to drain cysts and fluid in the fibers of his left knee was done with relatively little fanfare. Although it caused him to rehabilitate for two months, questions about the knee ended when Woods won three times, including by 11 shots at Bay Hill. But as the year wore on, Woods confessed that the healing was not complete. Although the pre-operation pain was gone, insiders say the surgery revealed that more worrisome than the benign cysts was the stretched condition of Woods' anterior cruciate ligament. Presumed to be caused by Woods' leg-snapping action through impact, it led him to wonder if he would have to change his swing to lessen long-term wear and tear.
After tying for 20th at the U.S. Open, Woods addressed the condition of his knee in the Olympia Fields locker room. Asked if playing and practicing on the knee presented more of a physical or mental barrier, he said, "Both," adding that "to go ahead and let it go, it's not quite there." And to the question of whether the injury had caused him to regard his career as more finite, Woods answered, "Not during a tournament itself. But sometimes at home, by myself, yes."
His father, Earl, fills in the blanks: "Tiger won't say much about his knee, because he's a warrior, and a warrior doesn't admit weakness or vulnerability to the competition. But the knee caused him problems. Compensating for it last year probably got him into some bad swing habits. That and intentionally swinging less forcefully at the driver cost him some distance. He's still probably not all the way back as far as fully trusting the joint or his swing. The plan was to take a year before the thing is strong again. All this time, his biggest strength -- his power -- became a weakness, but finding a way to play through it as well as he has this year is going to make him a better golfer."
Despite Woods' aversion to the word "slump," cold numbers assert that his ball striking -- particularly in the less-forgiving majors -- was not up to his high standard. In 2003, Woods was a dramatically diminished driver of the golf ball. After experimenting for much of the year with drivers presented to him by Nike, Woods competed with a TaylorMade model in Germany, and by the PGA he had switched back to the Titleist 975D he had used from 1998 to 2001. Through mid-September, Woods dropped to career lows in driving distance (14th), fairways hit (138th) and total driving (41st). In part because he was so often playing from the rough, Woods was 31st in greens in regulation, a category in which he has never finished worse than fifth in five of his previous six pro seasons.
Woods' putter received a lot of blame, but it was misplaced. Though he was among the worst on tour making putts of more than 25 feet -- amazingly, he made only four of 145 tries through mid-September -- he was tied for seventh among his peers making putts between 10 and 15 feet (38.5 percent, making 40 of 104). No, Woods' biggest problem in 2003 was his swing.
So, have we seen the best of Tiger Woods? He may never again have a season to top what he did in 2000, but it's hard to believe his setbacks will be much more than temporary. Even though he's 0 for his last six major championships, as long as he wins another before July 2005, he will remain ahead of Nicklaus' pace. Indeed, the two golfers with the longest span of majors victories, Nicklaus (24 years) and Gary Player (19), don't see a crisis.
"There has never been anyone in the history of the game who has kept winning majors every year, even in his prime," says Player. "The fact is, you have only four a year, and it's just the law of averages that even the best will only win them sometimes."
Nicklaus says similar lulls fueled his best surges. "I sort of coasted along for a couple of years, winning tournaments but not winning majors -- a little like Tiger now," he says. "That's not what he wants, and it wasn't what I wanted. I snapped out of it. And Tiger will snap out of it."
Certainly Woods' fierce knack for disproving his critics would argue for a major bounce-back. If he pulls it off, it will mean more to him than ever. Because, make no mistake, golf happened to Tiger Woods in 2003 like it never has before.
SOME FREE ADVICE FOR TIGER
By Jim Hardy
Photo: J.D. Cuban
I have great respect for the talent and accomplishments of Tiger Woods and the work he has done with Butch Harmon. In the big picture, the two have built and refined one of the greatest swings in the history of golf. But I believe that the ball-striking problems Tiger has had in 2003 are the inevitable result of trying to correct an old fault with the wrong fix.
1. THE FIX. When Woods was an amateur and during his first year as a pro, he had a habit of getting his club pointed right of the target and slightly shut at the top of his backswing. It made him susceptible to a hook with his driver and led to distance-control problems with his irons. On the other hand, Tiger usually was able to square the clubface at impact with a tremendously fast rotational uncoiling of his shoulders, torso and hips. That was the basis of his swing.
__2. THE PROBLEMS.__During Tiger's swing-rebuilding phase from late 1997 to early 1999, he was determined to get the club on plane and square at the top. He did it primarily by swinging his arms back on a path farther from his body. That move got the club pointed parallel to the target line at the top with the face less closed, but it created other faults.
While the path of his club in his old swing had indeed been too inside, the path of his arms had been correct. So while he might have had the club across the line at the top, the match of his arm swing to his shoulder turn were perfect.
But in his effort to get the club back on plane, Tiger incorrectly got his arms what I call "outside his turn." It caused his upper left arm to disconnect from his left pectoral muscle on the backswing rather than staying pressed against it.
__3. THE COMPENSATIONS.__From this less "tied together" position at the top, Tiger has to make compensations as he starts down so he can drop the club into the proper slot. It's a move that is highly reliant on superb timing. Tiger is a gifted enough athlete to still get it right the majority of the time, and from late 1999 through all of 2000 he did better than that, playing probably the finest sustained golf of all time.
But since then, Tiger's arm swing away from the ball has gotten even farther from his body. His return to the ball as a young pro was simple and very powerful, but now it's dependent on his correctly repositioning his arms as he starts down. As a result, one of two bad things have happened more frequently, especially with the driver.
The most common occurs when he doesn't drop his arms enough to the inside. With his body sensing that the downswing path is headed out to in, Tiger compensates by keeping the clubface open and wiping across the ball, producing the block fade that he has hit so often lately.
When Tiger returns to the ball by dropping his arms too far inside the proper plane, it results in the so-called "stuck" position he bemoans. Now the club is entering the hitting area from inside to out, forcing Tiger to rotate his hands in an attempt to save the shot from going right. What often ensues is a shot that goes left.
Having to drop his arms into the slot at the top is why Tiger has come to believe that as he starts the downswing, he has to slow down his hips and torso so they won't leave his arms behind. This is why he talks about keeping his arms more "in front of" his body, so they will match up with his body release. To me, this effort is costing him power and accuracy. If Tiger's arms were properly connected to his turn at the top of his swing as they used to be, he wouldn't have to slow anything down. He could simply turn back to the ball with no compensations and all the force he wants.
__4. WHAT NOW?__My advice to Tiger is to go back to swinging his arms back on a more inside path, but making sure that the club itself goes back on a less inside path than it used to. This would give him his old coil and arm position back, with the on-plane club and square clubface he originally sought. In my opinion, it would make him better than ever.