MARANA, Ariz. – Depending on who you ask, or who you believe, Tiger Woods is either one swing away from a breakthrough or swinging aimlessly in the dark. Knowing Woods, and his swing coach Sean Foley, we’ll take the points and the former.
Yet there is no escaping the fact that this swing change, No. 4 for Woods as an adult, has been the most scrutinized. When asked about his current slump, a victory drought that stretches back 15 months and 17 events, Woods is quick to point out that he’s been here before.
In early 1994 he “shortened up” his swing with Butch Harmon and in 1997 he and Harmon underwent a more intense overhaul. Seven years later he underwent a third nip/tuck with Hank Haney. With each change came a predictable slump and, to be accurate, he’s only played nine worldwide events under Foley’s guidance, hardly an adequate snapshot to gauge what has been billed as a dramatic change.
“You know, for the first (change), when I first worked with Butch it took me a year and a half. Then my second change with Butch took me almost two full years. With Hank it took me about 18 months or so. That's a long time before things start clicking,” Woods said recently. “I know it's going to take a long time.”
But what qualifies as a good year for some can be seen as disastrous when viewed through the fish bowl where Woods resides, and with each passing week the external questions and concerns build.
Most of Woods’ professional fraternity brothers can relate to being caught in between a swing that works on the practice tee but only in fits and spurts when it counts in competition. Lee Westwood, who dethroned Woods atop the World Golf Ranking last year, figures he’s gone through “hundreds” of swing changes in his career, including a particularly sluggish transformation nearly a decade ago when he plummeted outside of the top 100 in the world.
“There's no point in sort of doing it wishy-washy,” Westwood said on Tuesday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. “I think that's maybe part of my problem eight, nine years ago, when I went through the slump. I didn't get it all straightened out in my mind what I was going to do. I fluttered between different people's ideas rather than going with what I thought was right.”
But if anyone outside of Jack Nicklaus can relate to the unrealistically lofty expectations placed on Woods it is 10-time major champion Annika Sorenstam who dominated the LPGA Tour just as convincingly as Woods once reigned over the men’s circuit.
Renowned her entire career as a quintessential ballstriker, we asked Sorenstam last week as she prepared for her junior event at Reunion Resort outside Orlando, Fla., how many swing changes she went through?
“None,” she said almost surprised by the question. “I tried to fine-tune it every year but I have a very repeatable swing. I don’t understand why (Woods) wants to go through so many swing changes. I was very surprised. I’m always surprised.”
On this, Woods has been rather clear. His goal is perpetual improvement and regardless of results that wasn’t happening in 1994 and 1997 with Harmon or 2004 with Haney and certainly not in 2010 when he signed on with Foley before the PGA Championship.
“I know I can become better,” is his default answer when asked why he would tinker with an action that has produced 14 major championships and 71 Tour titles.
But this particular extreme makeover is less about something new than it seems to be a quest for a swing from Woods’ past. Foley has consistently said the current swing, at least the desired impact position, is virtually no different from the way Woods swung as a junior. It’s why some have speculated that this change will not take 18 to 24 months to sink in like the changes with Harmon and Haney.
“He wants his old swing back, I can tell you that,” Sorenstam said.
But if Woods is coming full swing circle it would seem to support Sorenstam’s original assessment – why change something that was so good?
In fairness to Woods, Sorenstam collected her majors with a simple, Xerox-worthy action that wore down opponents and the most demanding golf courses. Other than 2006 at Hoylake, where he picked apart the field and Royal Liverpool with long irons, and the 2000 U.S. Open clinic at Pebble Beach, Woods has largely made his competitive bones with power and clutch putting.
It’s a reality that at least partially explains why Woods turned to Harmon in 1997 after winning the Masters by 12 strokes and Haney in 2004 after a five-victory 2003 that featured just one Grand Slam top-10.
It’s the lessons of another legend that Woods appears to have a kindred connection with in his never-ending quest. In 1987 Ben Hogan told Golf Digest: “This sounds stupid, but I thought I was always in a slump. Most of the enjoyment in life is in improving.”
In this maybe the golf world is trapped by a classic sport psychology pitfall, lost in the immediacy of results instead of the foundations of the process. For Woods it has always been the climb not the peak that drives him and his current expedition is no different.