July 7, 2007

My Shot: Hank Haney

A world-class instructor provides some tips for your game (and insight into Tiger's) and explains why it's not a good idea to stand back when you meet Chunk.

Hank Haney, photographed Feb. 28, 2005, at the Hank Haney Golf Ranch in McKinney, Tex.

Hank Haney, photographed Feb. 28, 2005, at the Hank Haney Golf Ranch in McKinney, Tex.

Age 49 Teaching pro Dallas, Texas

I can't believe all this talk about how we need to scale back the golf ball and how far it's going. Are you hitting the ball too far? Has the game gotten too easy for you? To 99.9 percent of us, the answer is no. Golf is too darn difficult. Courses have gotten longer and more challenging. Fairways are irrigated so the ball doesn't roll, but they're mowed so tight it's like hitting off this table. Greens are so firm you don't leave a ball mark half the time, and they're twice as fast as they were 15 years ago. And the game has gotten too easy? For who, the top five players in the world? Keep making golf harder, and eventually it'll become like tennis and duckpin bowling. Meaning: dead.

I have a dog named Chunk. He's a Bouvier and weighs 100 pounds. When people come to my house, they see Chunk and immediately take a step backward. When Chunk senses their fear, he starts growling. I always have to be there to make sure there's no disaster. I'd told Tiger I had a dog named Chunk and that he was size large—that was all I told him—and the first time he met him, I heard the door open from another room and thought, Oh my God, Tiger's going to be torn apart. I bolted into the room just as Tiger was saying "Hi, Chunk" and patting him on the head. Tiger doesn't have a lot of fear about anything. My dog licked Tiger's hand and went back to sleep. Tiger gets along with dogs like nobody I've ever seen.

There are a thousand golfers who are tour-caliber ball-strikers. They truly seem to be a dime a dozen. There are many reasons they fail to make it to the tour—their short games might be inadequate, or they don't putt well enough, or they can't think themselves around the course. But I would say that the biggest thing that holds most people back is that they just don't pay a big enough price to be successful. It's so obvious, and I say it to players all the time. I get some interesting reactions. Sometimes you can see in their eyes a crestfallen look that tells you they'll work hard, but not too hard. Sometimes they stick around and keep trying, hoping against hope that their level of doggedness will get them there. But most of them don't.

Having watched all "The Big Break" episodes, I've concluded that those players don't need a break, what they really need is more game. The winners will get more than a big break, they'll get a reality check. Most people have no concept as to how good touring professionals are.

The thing that amazes me the most about Tiger Woods is that he has absolutely no quit in him. None. Last year at Tiger's wedding I had a chance to talk to his father, and I asked him how he instilled that in Tiger. Earl traced it to a junior tournament played on Tiger's 13th birthday. Even then people knew who Tiger Woods was, and the gallery sang "Happy Birthday" to him on the first tee. Earl told me that Tiger proceeded to play poorly, and in full view of everyone he began pouting, whining and slapping the ball around the course. Earl said he had never really gotten on Tiger before, but on this day he took him into the snack bar after the round was over, locked the door and they had a little talk. He told Tiger that his behavior was a disgrace and reminded him that the game of golf didn't owe him anything, the golf course didn't owe him anything, and that he, Earl, sure didn't owe him anything. He told him that pouting and whining were just other forms of quitting. Earl said Tiger didn't talk to him on the flight home and gave him the silent treatment for two more days after that. On the third day Tiger came up and told his father, "Pop, I heard every word you said. I promise I'll never quit again," and he never has. Tiger has 42 career victories and more than a hundred top-10 finishes, but it's his record cut streak that is the biggest example of the fact that he never quits.

Earl Woods, in my opinion, has done the greatest job in coaching with Tiger that anyone has done in the history of sports. That's the reason I told Tiger to not ever refer to me as his coach—I'm just his friend who helps him out once in a while with his swing. Tiger's parents, Earl and Tida, are his coaches, and they've done a remarkable job.

Moe Norman aligned his feet a bit to the right and hit a slight pull straight down the middle. Lee Trevino lined up to the left and hit a push cut, and Hogan had a square alignment. Two of the three best ball-strikers in history weren't lined up square to their target, so I tend to think that aim is overrated. The thing that isn't overrated is making a repeating golf swing. No matter what your aim is, if your swing repeats you're going to be a great ball-striker. I always say, if you can hit consistent shots, you can always find your aim.

Were it not for Mark O'Meara, there's a good chance you might never have heard of Hank Haney. Working with tour players gives the teacher instant credibility and implies he's vastly better than the guy down the street. The next thing you know he's charging $400 an hour for lessons. I'm not going to downplay my skill as a teacher, but I will say there are a good many everyday teachers out there who are passionate about what they do and are darned good at it. If you're a teacher and have one Mark O'Meara walk into your life, you would have to consider yourself very lucky. Behind every great teacher is a better student.

Of course, there are a lot of teachers who are only average, just as there are average dentists and so-so lawyers. The great savior for them has been video. When an instructor's knowledge and creativity run dry, he can start drawing lines on the screen and tell a guy how his swing doesn't match some model swing. There you have it—proof by an expert that your swing doesn't look like a touring pro's. Guess what? Most likely it never will.

All golfers know the short game is at least as crucial to shooting better scores as the long game, but in their heart of hearts what they want is the exhilaration of hitting the ball long and straight. Teachers are merely going where the action is.

I coached the Southern Methodist men's college golf team for five years. It was a good experience, and fascinating politically. It's not for the faint of heart. There's a coaches' mafia, if you will, in which you have to play ball to survive. Playing ball means not recruiting junior players who are already spoken for, rubbing each others' backs in terms of tournament invites, and so on. If you go against the grain, there's hell to pay. Suddenly you're reported for NCAA violations that didn't happen, and you're not invited to the best tournaments. I thought coaching was going to be solely about helping young people with their lives and their golf, and I felt like I was able to do some of that, but as for the rest, boy, was I naive.

So-called "pushy parents" usually don't deserve that label. A pushy parent is an involved parent, and it's far preferable to being a parent who isn't involved at all. It's irresponsible when the media find an extreme case and make a huge deal of it when the instances of uninvolved parents are far more common and 50 times as tragic. I'm very leery of the parent who says, "I don't want to push my kid," and I'm alarmed by the knee-jerk applause they get from certain segments of our society. I'm disappointed that parents are discouraged from even approaching the line of being "too involved." When parents are accused of "living vicariously" through their children, I say, well, at least they're in there pitching.

You've heard the expression, "If his real swing were like his practice swing, he'd be great." In truth, most practice swings are terrible. The rhythm is pretty nice, and that's where the quote originated, but mechanically most practice swings don't resemble a correct swing in any way. The changes I've encouraged Tiger to make in his swing are minuscule, but it's hard for anyone to change something in their swing. The best way to instill changes in someone's swing is to first improve your practice swings. I always say, if you can't do it in parts or in slow motion, how are you going to do it at full speed in a tournament? I think Tiger now has a lot of purpose in his practice swings; you can certainly see that he's taking a lot more of them. You can also see that Tiger is really trying to capture and groove a feeling before he hits a shot. Sometimes you can tell he's trying to over-exaggerate something in his practice swing to really get a feeling that is opposite of what he feels is his mistake tendency.

Most golfers say they're in it for the long haul, but they don't mean it. If they don't see immediate improvement, they find another instructor. So the teacher compromises to try to get quick results.

Tour pros have more skill and talent than amateurs. They also have bigger egos, which can make them difficult to deal with. To get through the day, the instructor has to remember that a large ego is a key reason the player is a high achiever, and if he wasn't a high achiever he wouldn't be playing for so much money.

Keith Kleven is a friend who is a physical therapist and the guy who helps Tiger with his physical conditioning. Keith is as knowledgeable about his profession as anyone I have ever seen in any profession, but the thing that really makes him special is that he lives by a saying that he has posted on a wall at his office. That saying says it all to me: "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care." I carry that saying in the back of my mind every day that I teach, and I never get too impressed with how much I think I might know.

Improve the quality of your practice. No more blind experimenting, hoping you'll stumble upon a secret or sensation that will become permanent. Get with your pro and make a list of three clear objectives. Give them time to sink in, and you will improve. I pass along this strategy with compliments to Vijay Singh. He's a real practicer who has identified his mistakes and just keeps working on the same things over and over.

Pay less attention to what your body is doing and more to what the club is doing. The club is hitting the ball, not your hips, shoulders, legs, arms or hands.

You can learn by seeing, hearing and feeling. Most teachers talk too much, and there's also a limit to what students will learn through their eyes. Feel is by far the most effective way to learn. You've got to put your hands on people and the club, and guide them through a motion physically. Once they get the correct feeling, the light really goes on. They've got it for good.

What I'm looking for is repeat business. Whether you teach golf or serve hamburgers, the most important part of business is getting people to come back. I don't think the reason McDonald's advertises is to get customers through their doors for the first time.

The concern that courses like Merion are becoming obsolete for the U.S. Open because they're too short is a little nuts. It might be obsolete for the very best players in the world, but Merion is more than almost anyone can handle. So Hogan hit a 1-iron into the 18th hole and today they're hitting an 8-iron? I have a great solution to that: Just hold the U.S. Open somewhere else and stop lengthening all these courses. The game is hard enough for the rest of the golfers who play it.

The 30-minute lesson is usually a disaster. The student is dissatisfied because it simply isn't enough time to get something accomplished. If the session is stretched to 45 minutes—which is usually the case—the teacher isn't thrilled, because he got paid for only 30 minutes of his time. In most cases a one-hour lesson is the best.

When I taught at Pinehurst in the early '80s we used to do clinics at night in the hotel. One night Dr. Richard Coop, the great sport psychologist, came to hear me speak, and when I got done I asked him how he thought I did. What Dr. Coop told me has had a lasting impression on my teaching. He told me that I needed first to remember that the audience hears only 10 percent of what you say. So from that point on I've always made sure that I repeat my main points at least 10 times to guarantee that my students get 100 percent of what I have to say.

I've often been accused of teaching a system, but I must say that's usually by people who have never seen me teach. Anyway, I think most teachers have kind of a model in their minds of how they think the club should be swung. What I've hung my hat on has always been the importance of swing plane. This isn't any new theory. Ben Hogan talked about the swing plane. The difference is that I'm less concerned with the plane of the left arm, which was Ben Hogan's point of reference. I'm more concerned about the plane of the golf club and the plane of the clubface. The movement of the club in space and the position of the clubface relative to the shaft is just about everything to me. There are many things an individual must do with his body to make the club perform as it should, and teaching that is an art. If you inject enough art into the science, it no longer is a system.

Hogan's concept of swing plane shaped my teaching philosophy, but I think it was flawed. His image of the plane, the straight line that went from the ball up through the shoulders and beyond, is too upright. Nor do I believe the left arm is the point of reference. I'm a huge proponent of swing plane, but my focal point is the clubshaft. I prefer the club to swing on a plane that is always parallel to the original plane that the shaft was on at address. I do believe, as Hogan did, that every person has a different swing plane depending on their build.

Hogan, by the way, is perceived as hitting a fade whenever he could. That might be true, but I believe his natural ball flight was a slight draw. Mark O'Meara told me that when he met with Mr. Hogan, he asked him what the correct flight on a shot should be. Hogan told him that the ideal ball flight was a draw from right to left. His explanation was that because the golf club swings on an arc that goes from inside in the backswing to straight at impact and back to the inside in the through-swing, the correct shot would be a slight draw. So while a lot of people saw Hogan play fades, they were manufactured and ran contrary to the shape of his swing.

At my golf schools, golfers do whatever they want. I'm against regimentation—full swing at 9 a.m., bunker play at 10 a.m., and so on. Most students hate that. If someone wants to stay on the practice tee all day long, I'm more than fine with that, because that's how he's going to have fun. Usually they get worn out and want to go chip for a while. But drag guys over to the putting green if they don't want to go? No way. It's their money.

The three best ball-strikers in most people's minds are Moe Norman, Lee Trevino and Ben Hogan. The one thing that all three were missing that is a part of today's game is raw power. There is no substitute for clubhead speed. It widens your capabilities tremendously in terms of ball flight. That's why I think that Tiger will join this group of greatest ball-strikers. With Tiger it's often like a heavyweight fighting middleweights.

If you take lessons from me and don't improve, the fault is all mine.