Where Theres Smoke


There was a stretch of about 48 hours last week when Hank Haney and I must have exchanged 70 or 80 text messages, most of which regarded his uncertain future as Tiger Woods' swing coach. A lot of people, including a few of my colleagues at the Golf Channel, scoffed at the latest Tiger-Hank alarms. How many times do you evacuate the building without catching even a whiff of smoke?

This time, however, those close enough could smell something burning. Between the Masters and Quail Hollow, Woods told at least one fellow player he was preparing to move “in a different direction.” Haney himself began joking about the frequent speculation over his job status, especially after some disparaging comments from Johnny Miller, who has made a second career out of successfully blurring the line between analyst and arsonist.
Tiger Woods waves at the Bucik Open
Tiger Woods will now move on to his third professional swing coach. (Getty Images)
Miller has always liked the Butch Harmon swing more than the Hank Haney swing, and a lot of smart golf folks have agreed with Miller. Hank, meanwhile, could lean on his numbers: Woods won 21 times in 45 starts between July 2006 and the end of ’09. He picked up six major titles during the Haney era, each of the four at least once, so if Hank had his naysayers, critics and uninformed demons, he also had a truckload of evidence to prove them wrong.

The us-against-the-world mentality, the cynical eye, the stubbornness, the sarcasm – Tiger and Hank definitely saw life through a similar lens. After Haney announced Monday night that he was ending his six-year association with Woods, Tiger began his terse acknowledgement by saying it was a mutual decision. His praise for the man looking after him was always brief and reserved – don’t think Hank never noticed – as if Eldrick Almighty learned something during his previous partnership with Harmon.

Don’t give anybody too much credit, especially when you’re the world’s best golfer by a couple of miles, because hitting the golf ball is a much harder job than telling someone how to do it.

In a sense, Woods is right. Swing coaches, like Ryder Cup captains and flight attendants, are prone to overestimating the importance of their role as it relates to the big picture. Haney’s presence at PGA Tour events had decreased in recent years, his function becoming one of maintenance more than instruction, and Hank, better than anyone, understood the talent level he was dealing with and the spotlight he was supposed to avoid.

Why would Haney walk away? Perhaps he just got tired of all the peripheral commotion – the media reverberations, the stretches of public disapproval, Woods’ reluctance to elaborate on Hank’s value to the operation. Maybe Haney finally realized he was often blamed when Woods played poorly but turned invisible when Tiger won golf’s biggest championships. To be blunt, I think Woods liked having Haney around but didn’t see him as a necessity when it came to winning golf tournaments. 

John Hawkins appears on Golf Central every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET and on the Grey Goose 19th Hole every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.

To say both men needed a change is probably an understatement. In recent years, Woods has developed the annoying habit of telling everyone he won’t return to competitive golf until he’s good and ready, but when he does come back and plays poorly, he tells you with a straight face that the process takes time. Last month’s comeback was unquestionably the most scrutinized in the game’s history, giving Woods numerous opportunities to tell people his neck was bothering him.

A month later, fresh off a horrible performance at Quail Hollow and 61 holes of indifferent play at TPC Sawgrass, Woods walks off the golf course and says his neck has been bothering him for a while. Does he owe us an detailed explanation? Not really, but at a time when his credibility is at an all-time low, Tiger might consider a reality check to go with that MRI. His entire career has been shrouded in a cloak of undue secrecy, a manufactured lack of disclosure everyone simply accepted until he began making triple bogeys in his personal life.

Things have changed, although the Dude in the Red Shirt really hasn’t. In his first public appearance after slamming into the fire hydrant, Woods told us he doesn’t get to play by a different set of rules, although one would have a hard time proving that he’s practicing what he preached. Haney got a lot out of Tiger. Woods got a lot out of Hank. With more change on the horizon, it’s best to just leave it at that.

Note: Watch as Jim Gray sits down with Hank Haney for an exclusive, one-on-one interview Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET on Golf Central.