When Tiger Woods was at his best, in the early 2000s, there were fiscal studies done to explain the consistent rise of the stock market on the Mondays following his Sunday wins. Euphoria – and the optimism that flows from it – was the reason given for the otherwise inexplicable upward market trends following Tiger’s victories. Some 15 years later, there is nothing euphoric about Tiger’s game, and the word most often used to describe it, is "sad."
Golf has a short list of players who ascended to the highest level and then fell to oblivion. In the late 1930s Ralph Guldahl won back-to-back U.S. Opens and in three successive years finished second twice and then won the Masters. If there had been a world ranking system, he would've been at the top. He owned Sam Snead, and beat Byron Nelson by as many as 10 shots en route to winning three majors.
In 1939 Guldahl was offered an instruction-book deal. Taking advantage of newly developed high-speed photography, he put together a flip-book sequence of his swing, called “Groove Your Golf." Shortly thereafter the magic disappeared. His last wins came in 1940, and at age 28 he all but quit the game.
“It's the most ridiculous thing, really," said Paul Runyan, who won 29 times including two PGA Championships. "Guldahl went from being temporarily the best player in the world to one who couldn't play at all.”
Ralph’s wife, Laverne, said, “When he sat down to write that book, that’s when he lost his game.”
Many concurred, and the legend was cemented that over-analyzing his swing led to the destruction of his career.
Then and now: Tiger's swing
If his family and friends were right, Guldahl’s demise was a classic case of conscious thought ruining the flow of athletic gifts – what has come to be called paralysis by analysis.
From 1997-2001 Tiger Woods won 27 times and many shrank in his presence, but David Duval toppled him from the top spot in the world more than once while winning 13 events over this five-year span. David seemed the perfect foil to the colossal talent of Tiger, but his game slipped in 2002 and from 2003-2005 he played 49 tournaments and made just eight cuts.
Unlike Guldahl, who may have lost his game to a technical introspection, Duval’s body betrayed him and a host of injuries chloroformed his career.
Woods has fallen not because he overanalyzed his swing or because his body has given out (his "misfiring-glutes" WD at Torrey Pines notwithstanding). The reasons for Tiger’s fall, like his rise, are not found in statistics, which so often fail to make a distinction between wood and trees. The reason for Tiger’s fall is his ill-fated mythical quest for perfection.
Once when I was sitting in the locker room next to Fred Funk, the straightest driver of my generation, Tiger walked by us and said to him, “I’m coming after you," meaning he had made it his goal to drive it straighter than Fred. I thought to myself, perhaps, but at what cost?
Tiger wanted the perfect swing, to drive it straighter than Funk, to surpass the legend of Hogan. He wanted the perfect body, to intimidate with his presence as much as with his swing. He wanted the perfect record, to fling down and dance upon the annals of golf, to surpass the legend of Jack Nicklaus.
Neither Butch Harmon nor Hank Haney would give Tiger what he wanted, always pointing at the leaderboard in an attempt to get him to stop trying to unravel the rainbow. They knew from their playing backgrounds and having been taught by former players themselves, Butch by his father Claude and Hank by Jim Hardy, that a good shot mattered more than a good swing, and what mattered more than anything was a clear head.
Sean Foley is different and comes at this game from more of an academic background. More professorial than pro. Golf instructors used to have callouses and wrinkles; now they have letters after their names.
With those letters comes a certain arrogance; enough to convince even the best players that they don’t know anything about the golf swing. Enough to persuade Tiger at age 35 to change his swing once again, and not only his swing, but his chipping and putting, too.
These changes were different, though, because they were rooted in math. There is a linear beauty to numbers that is simple and indisputable, and to someone as talented and as malleable and as addicted to perfection as Tiger, irresistible.
But the problem is, golf is not like that. It’s not linear, it’s abstract. It’s not beautiful, it’s messy.
Inevitably the misses don’t make sense because the numbers are there, because the computers say it’s right but today my hands feel fat and my hips won't fire and that square peg won't go in that round hole. Frustration builds, and a player works harder and harder, until he begins to think that the problem is with him and so he works harder – just a few more “reps” and I will get this, he thinks. Of course he won’t and he never will but what he does in the process is beat up his body and confidence is replaced by timidity. The joy of the game is gone.
The mathematical-perfection trend in this game, which has Tiger by the throat and teachers in a tizzy, requires vigilant attention to swing mechanics, and that is not what this game is about. We need all of our senses to corroborate what we see and the imagination thrives on that information to help us create. That is the highest form of this game and is, perhaps above all else, what is beautiful about golf and sad about Tiger.