Tiger the coach and catching up with Tiger's old coach

By John HawkinsOctober 29, 2012, 3:00 pm

Back in the day – certainly during the pre-Elin years, before the world’s best golfer turned into a rock star – Tiger Woods was somewhat accessible as cultural icons go. While compiling an oral history on the 1999 Ryder Cup in the spring of 2001, Tim Rosaforte and I met Mark O’Meara on the Isleworth practice range for a scheduled interview during Bay Hill week.

Woods was hitting balls alongside his buddy, blasting shot after shot halfway to Ocala with a Cleveland persimmon driver. “Here, hit a few,” he said, tossing me the club, which felt like a telephone pole. I could barely get the ball airborne – the shaft was stiffer than my seventh-grade gym teacher – and when I handed the driver back to him, Tiger began mocking my swing with enough exaggeration to warrant serious laughter.

His imitation of my over-the-top, outside-in lunge came with a half-dozen words of advice. “Hit the inside of the ball,” Woods instructed, and for the next four or five years, I played the best golf of my life. One simple, easy-to-visualize tip. Six words to describe the biggest mechanical difference between pros and amateurs.

So Tiger’s my swing coach. As for one of the guys who used to work with Woods . . .


MORE THAN SIX months have passed since Hank Haney’s revealing portrait of Woods, “The Big Miss,” hit shelves shortly before the Masters. Haney was vilified by many for “outing” his former client, for violating some unwritten confidentiality clause between the two. No question, there wasn’t a hotter or more persistent topic on my live chats throughout the spring.

Woods basically ignored any questions regarding the book around the time of its release, and for all the people who made it a point to say they wouldn’t read it, a ton of people did. “The Big Miss” reached No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, meaning Haney reaped a pretty penny while dealing with the scorn.

“After that,” he says of the NYT listing, “I stopped counting, didn’t even pay any attention. The rest of the [revenue] was just gravy. The biggest criticism I got was from people who said I shouldn’t have written a book, but the No. 1 comment by far was from people who came up and said, ‘I was a Tiger Woods fan before I read it and I’m a bigger fan now.’ They saw what it takes to be him.”

My relationship with Haney dates back to before he began working with Woods (2004), which has nothing to do with my endorsement of the project. Why would anyone make a fuss over a book about a guy who was the target of worldwide derision for months in the wake of his marital transgressions? From Jay Leno to the New York Post and all snarky practitioners in between, Tiger served as a human pinata in the winter of 2009-10.

All those reverberations, which led to a complete overhaul of Woods’ public image, were harpoons compared with Haney’s anecdotes about Tiger’s selfishness and singlemindedness. One key aspect to “The Big Miss” is that the author never passed judgment on Woods – long after so many others who didn’t know him had.

There wasn’t any piling on, and not just because the pile had already dispersed. “I had a guy from (the Tiger Woods Foundation) come up to me and say, 'great book,' and I asked him if I was too hard on him. The guy said no, but I hold no ill regard to anyone who didn’t approve.”

One consistent trend with Tiger: a majority of his partnerships end with a burst of flames and a burned bridge. Former caddie Steve Williams is probably the best example, but for all those who have been excommunicated from the Woods camp over the years, Haney is the one who walked away in this case. People who read the book surely found it far more revealing than mean-spirited. Many of the critics never made it to the foreword.


IF IT HAPPENS, it would qualify as one of the biggest rule changes in sports over the last 25 years – comparable to the NBA’s adoption of a three-point line, certainly as significant as the implementation of an overtime format in college football. In terms of its impact on pro golf, the abolition of anchored putters would have an enormous impact. Sort of like making NHL players go back to wooden sticks.

Given the growing number of top young players using the broomsticks, it’s easy to see at least some of them struggling to make 8-footers on Sunday afternoon.

Rex Hoggard recently reported on this website that the game’s governing bodies expect to reach a verdict on the matter by early December, leaving me to believe some form of legislation will be passed. Six weeks? That doesn’t leave us much time to weigh the pros and cons.

Keep ‘em! Long putters have made a difficult game at least slightly more tolerable for many who have played it for a long time. At the recreational level, there’s no reason to make them illegal – they’re good for business.

Kill ‘em! If anchoring the club doesn’t exactly constitute a competitive advantage, the physical act of putting, which requires fluid and independent movement of the arms and hands, is obviously compromised.

Keep ‘em! It’s not like the guys who first wielded the broomsticks instantly began dominating. No one claimed a major title with an anchored putter until Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA, and that was Jason Dufner’s fault.

Kill ‘em! All these kids bracing the club against their bellies – what’s this game coming to? Weren’t those things supposed to be for old guys?

We could go on, but you get the point. The fact that three of the last five major champions – all 32 or younger – used a crutch to help them clutch the trophy is all the evidence I need. The trend is disturbing, even if the data is at least slightly inconclusive. The U.S. Golf Association and R&A should move to take on this problem now, the better to protect the game’s competitive integrity in the long run.


NOT THAT YOU ASKED, BUT ... 

• Two competing tournaments in Asia – one an official event on the European Tour with a strong foreign field, the other a soon-to-be-sanctioned gathering on the PGA Tour with nobody but the Only Guy Who Matters. What scares me about the future of pro golf? That pretty much covers it.

Actually, Camp Ponte Vedra’s fall field trip to the Far East doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s the idea that the 2014 season will officially start in October 2013 with a tournament that didn’t even exist three years ago. If the sky’s not falling, why is Chicken Little busting out windows with his 6-iron?

• I was all set to pluck down my $5 and watch the Tiger-Rory challenge match until Hurricane Sandy ordered my internet service to take the rest of the night off. So I settled for the “Morning Drivehighlights package, which showed the two superstars playing for a huge crowd under heavy cloud cover in China. McIlroy beat Woods by one, and the live-stream audience heard Tiger chagrin his wedge play, telling Rory, “I’ve been hitting my short irons so [bleeping] far.” In other words, no news there.

Forgive me for overthinking this, but I’m not exactly sure what it means when someone says, “no one’s bigger than the game.” Really? Two guys just received a cruise ship-sized boatload of money to play 18 holes against each other for the ostensible purpose of promoting golf in a country that already has a ton of golf in its bloodstream. Is this about tomorrow’s health or today’s revenue?

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.