Pursuit of perfection leaves Tiger's swing in disarray


In Tiger Woods’ 2001 book “How I Play Golf” he said, “There is no guess work involved in my swing now – when I hit a bad shot, my understanding of cause and effect enables me to pinpoint the reason immediately.”

The roots of that swing were of his conception. After his victory at the 1997 Masters, Tiger watched the tape of that historic blowout start to finish, alone. Expecting to see perfection in his method, he mostly saw flaws.

By his count there were at least 10 things that he didn't like, so he called Butch Harmon, who agreed with Tiger’s assessment and the two of them went to work. Within a year, the swing that would go on to win four consecutive majors was his. He owned it. He wrote a book about it.

What has happened in the last few years has defied all reason. Both his body and his swing have become so altered from that architecture, and he seems so orphaned from the intuition that led to that swing, that he is scarcely recognizable.

This has happened before.

For a while Seve Ballesteros played golf like no one had ever seen, contorting his body in an utterly freakishly athletic way, springing into each shot with a splendid extravagance, each swing unlike the preceding one. Each was a masterpiece. Every move was a new discovery to his genius which originated in the solitude on a beach in Spain where he picked shot after shot off that compacted sand. It was his swing and he owned it.

Tiger conceived of that 2000 swing alone in a room and Seve of his on the beach. I don't think this was provenance being bestowed on them by fate. Besides their enormous physical talents I believe there is intellectual power in solitude, that there is discovery and confidence in solitude. Seve and Tiger tapped into that in a way few ever have.

Like Tiger would be after him, though, Seve was wild off of the tee and like Tiger would do after him he let the pursuit of perfection engulf his talent. Seve, seeking to straighten his drives, sought the guidance of Mac O’Grady, whose mythical ball striking was just that, mostly myth. From 1983-93, his productive years, he was, if I were being nice, average tee to green. But he was a student of Homer Kelly’s book “The Golfing Machine”, a sort of cryptic geometric bible about the golf swing and this advanced the myth.

Seve took the bait and digested those inscrutable golfing machine ideas and never had a top-five finish in a major after age 32. By his mid-30s I saw a player that was divested of all that he was.

Sean Foley read “The Golfing Machine” (TGM) as a teenager but to be fair, like most, he finds flaws in that sphinx-like book. Overriding in his teaching themes, though, are the same sort of propagated mathematical perfections found in TGM. He and teachers like him may yet prove that this more cognitive approach to golf will take the place of Harvey Penick’s homespun instruction in the “Little Red Book.” The promise of this attracts players in the most enticing way. With the promise of perfection, Foley says, “It’s simple math.”

Only it doesn't look simple.

Do yourself a favor, go onto YouTube and search Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. Scroll down until you find video of them playing in a tournament and watch, not how they swing, but how they begin to swing. In those 20-30 seconds before the club moves away notice how forthright and confident they move – authoritative and awesome to watch.

None of their teachers were ever in sight.

Now search for Suzann Pettersen, Mike Weir, Michelle Wie and Justin Rose, not to see their swings, which are beautiful, but to see how they begin to swing. You will notice a distinct difference to the names above, in both the purpose and cadence of their pre-shot routines. They make rehearsals, they contort their bodies into positions they hope to achieve during the swing, they fret with faux takeaways, all to do something they are already exceptional at. It’s a type of timidity that has become the norm.

Their teachers are rarely out of sight.

The difference between these two groups is the very nature of the way this game is taught now at the professional level – by helicopter teachers who hover. These teachers are well informed and drown out the self-discovery and the confidence that comes from that and replace it with one idea after another and another.

Nicklaus’ teacher Jack Grout said “the golfer who must fall back on a teacher every time any little thing sours in his game cannot but have a limited future.” Jack was given a set of basics or fundamentals and then left to work them out on his own, just as Seve and Tiger did for a time.

Nicklaus’ records stand as evidence not just to his talent but to the proper nurturing and maintenance of that talent. Just as his records are the gold standard so, too, should his teacher-student relationship with Grout be an example that the goal of any instructor should be the independence of their students.

Tiger at 21 knew enough about his swing to orchestrate the changes that lead to the greatest stretch of golf in history. At 38 he may be golf’s version of Humpty Dumpty and all the king’s men hopeless to place him back into his origins. Perhaps he should tell all the king’s men to take a hike.

Alone in thought, watching the video from the 1997 Masters Tiger was in as powerful a state as any athlete can be. He decided what needed to be done, he had a game plan, he could feel it, taste it, smell it and he executed it.

Who should be his next coach is likely the difference between him breaking Jack’s major record or not and because of what he means to golf, that decision means a lot to the game. This is all precisely why I hope his next teacher’s name is Tiger.