Vintage FormNovember 1, 2019

An inside look at why Tiger Woods’ post-surgery swing is clicking

The ZOZO Championship at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club - Final Round
Ben JaredCHIBA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 28: Tiger Woods tees off on the 12th tee during the final round of The ZOZO Championship at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club on October 28, 2019 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

Nobody has seen Tiger Woods hit more balls than Rob McNamara, the TGR Ventures vice president who has not only played more than 500 rounds with Woods in the last 15 years, but is also his designated practice partner at home in Jupiter, Fla., and a second set of eyes when Woods is on the road competing. So, like literally everyone else in golf, McNamara was an interested observer when Woods played the ZOZO Championship in Japan. He just had a much better vantage point.

By almost universal assessment, Woods’ swing in Japan looked better than it has in years—certainly the best since Woods’ back surgeries from 2014 to 2017. He was smooth, fast and confident in Japan, finishing in the top 10 in the field in driving accuracy and greens hit, and leading it in putting. His swing looked loose and pain free—even with the stops and starts that came with significant rain delays.

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The results speak for themselves, but McNamara also has unique insight into the real reasons Woods seems to be rounding into vintage form.

The knee surgery in August was a really big deal

The procedure Woods had on his left knee wasn’t significant in medical terms—he had a minor cartilage cleanup that is practically standard for NFL players. But it had a cascading effect on his ability to practice without pain, says McNamara. “The pain in his knee had hurt his ability to rotate and push off the ground,” he says. “Even at Augusta last year, he would tend to slide instead of push, which would block his hips out. That would prevent him from really clearing—which puts more stress on his back, hips and obliques. Tiger’s a soldier, and he’d try to get through it, but we’d get out there and he’d have to shut it down because he was aggravating things with his swing.”

And compare that to his swing at the Masters, which you can see in this highlight video from Sunday at Augusta National:

After recovering from the knee procedure, Woods was able to practice as much as he wanted without those worries. “Once he could do that, I figured the results were going to follow,” says McNamara.

He found his “neutral swing”

McNamara’s main job (when he isn’t helping run TGR business day-to-day) is to help Woods confirm what he’s thinking and feeling about his swing—a hard-earned skill McNamara developed by honing his eye on the fine details of the various swing styles Woods has used for almost 20 years. “Tiger is his own coach, and he takes the lead on what he’s trying to do,” says McNamara. “Our back and forth comes when he shares where he wants to be and I see where he is and give my feedback. His overall goal is to clear and give himself room while not producing side bend. He wants his shoulders, knees and hips stacked—which is why that slide was such an issue. We’re always focusing on the clearing of the left hip. That’s critical to Tiger on a lot of levels. What I try to help him with, his goal is to be setup and be as neutral as possible. He’s a shot maker, and he wants to play the proper shape and attack flags. He doesn’t just hit one shot shape. He wants a setup that is neutral—with no fade bias or draw bias—and then he says, let me try fade, try draw, try high, try low. That’s the checklist. He had all of that he wanted in Japan.”

He’s finding the right practice/play balance

Coming back from major back surgery while staying competitive into one’s 40s and beyond is literally uncharted territory, which means Woods and his team have been figuring out best practices as they go. The days of marathon 12-hour practice sessions like the ones that were routine in his mid-20s are long gone—replaced by a plan that relies more on planning and efficient focus. “Our standard practice day at Medalist is hitting balls for about an hour, and then playing nine holes,” says McNamara. “He’ll put a significant amount of time in chipping, putting and wedge work at his home practice area. In this latest version of his game, he knows he has to focus more on his short game. He can practice that more and it doesn’t affect him physically—while there’s a limit to how much wear and tear he can put on his body making a lot of full speed full swings.” McNamara says one of the most exciting things about the victory in Japan is that it showed the potential for what can come when Woods has a stretch of good health. “The big difference we’re hoping to see is that the work on his game isn’t coming up with band-aids to prep around injuries,” says McNamara. “Physically, he’s in the best overall place right now. He’s 43 going on 44 and when you swing 120 miles per hour, you can cause yourself big problems. You have to continue to be careful, but the formula is there.”

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Social media was awash with armchair analysis about Woods’ swing positions in Japan and assessments of his improved “flow.” For McNamara, two shots at the ZOZO proved Woods is in a very good place with his game. The first was in the second round, on Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club’s difficult ninth hole—a 486-yard par-4. “The way that hole sets up for the tour players, you have to hit over 250 yards worth of trees with a high fade and fit it in a very tight fairway. If you don’t hit it high enough or far enough, you’re in a forest of trees and looking at a double,” says McNamara. “For the first time in a day and a half, I saw him really step on one. I don’t know how fast he swung, but from the eye test, he bumped it up a few miles per hour and hit it right down the center.”

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA

Tiger Woods hits a second shot at the 18th hole during the final round of the 2019 Zozo Championship.

The second instance was in the final round, on the par-3 5th—a 191-yard shot over water. “He had just made bogey on No. 4, and the pin on 5 was tucked right. It’s a scary pin position on a lot of levels—but not quite as scary if you can hit the right shot,” says McNamara. “He hit a high fade to that back right hole location and left it in the perfect spot under the hole about five or six feet. There was a lot of satisfaction in seeing that.”

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