On cue, the student launched a drive high into the cool California sky and almost through the dogleg on the 531-yard par 5. If wistful best describes Tiger Woods’ ongoing comeback in the eyes of fans and potential sponsors, Foley’s muted commentary on the state of his swing could only be interpreted as optimistic.
On the trending side of the ledger, Woods is fresh off his best competitive finish of the season, a fourth-place showing at the Australian Masters, was solid on Sunday in China at the WGC-HSBC Champions (68) and is the leader in the clubhouse for best 15-hole round of the year following his Monday singles thumping of one of the Molinari brothers.
Although Woods avoids finger pointing almost as deftly as he ducks pointed questions, one couldn’t help but feel a passing of the buck on Tuesday when the world No. 2 was asked why he felt he needed to tackle a fourth swing change.
“Throughout the summer I kept trying to do the things that I was working on with (swing coach Hank Haney) over the years, and it just wasn't working anymore, and it got to a point where I just couldn't do it,” Woods said. “It's kind of hard to try and play tournament level golf, major championship golf especially, when at the time I was struggling with which way the ball was going to go.”
Officially, Haney stepped down as the “swing coach of record” just after The Players Championship and he has confirmed in interviews that he hadn’t worked with Woods since the Masters in April.
Woods turned to Foley at the PGA Championship, but it was a marriage at a measured pace. The two spoke every night at Whistling Straits, addressing concepts and terminology more so than mechanics and movement.
“He was trying to explain his methodology, and it was certainly eye opening because there were a lot of terms I didn't know, just about coming to grips and understanding the terminology, and then how can I even implement it,” Woods said.
In the week between the PGA and the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs Woods committed to Foley and the results, at least compared to previous overhauls, came quickly.
In early 1994 and again in mid-1997, Woods underwent swing changes with Butch Harmon. In March 2003, he and Haney started anew. In ’97 and ’03 – Woods characterized the ’94 change as a “shortening up” of his swing – the learning curve was at least six months.
Although he’s yet to win with Foley, both agree the progress has been quicker than in previous makeovers, and much of that, Foley says, has to do with the basic concepts of the current change.
“All we're trying to do is peel the onion because personally I believe he swung this way when he was a kid,” Foley said. “I remember watching him in the (American Junior Golf Association) and the U.S. Amateur and all that, Tiger would hit the ball off line just like everyone else, but he always flushed it, he always hit it solid.
“Even in junior golf, it used to have a sound at impact I'd never heard to that point. Well, I just felt that was what was missing.”
On Tuesday at Sherwood, Woods echoed Foley’s assessment, and addressed the specific concepts of Foley’s philosophy with more depth than he has all season.
“We're always taught to move off and drive ourselves back onto the golf ball. Well, I used to drive myself onto the golf ball in the same position I'm in now when I was much younger, but I'm just doing it a different way now,” Woods said. “I'm getting to the same impact position a different way, and that is very different. I've been here before. So that's not that new.”
The frat brothers have also seen subtle improvement, even if the aura that used to be worth a stroke an event is missing.
“My caddie (Ken Comboy) played with him on Saturday in 2000 at Pebble Beach (U.S. Open). So he’s seen him at his best and he liked what he sees,” said Graeme McDowell, who was paired with Woods on Thursday and Friday at the HSBC Champions. “He looks like he’s swinging the club better and he looked quite mentally sharp in China.”
Winning his Chevron World Challenge would do little for Woods’ competitive mojo, although a victory this week could lift him back atop the Official World Golf Ranking if current No. 1 Lee Westwood doesn’t finish first or alone in second place at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa.
It could, however, help fuel Woods and Foley’s optimism. And after 2010, that’s a start.