Pursuit of perfection leaves Tiger's swing in disarray

By Brandel ChambleeAugust 26, 2014, 8:35 pm

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.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”

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Rory looking for that carefree inner-child

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:28 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Eleven years later, Rory McIlroy cringes at the photo: the yellow sweater with the deep V-neck, the chubby cheeks and the messy mop that curled under his cap.

“You live and you learn,” he said Wednesday, offering a wry smile.

The last time McIlroy played at a Carnoustie Open, in 2007, he earned the Silver Medal as the low amateur. He tied for 42nd, but the final result had mattered little. Grateful just to have a spot in the field, courtesy of his European Amateur title, he bounced along the fairways, soaking up every moment, and lingered behind the 18th green as one of his local heroes, Padraig Harrington, battled one of his favorite players, Sergio Garcia. Waiting for the trophy presentation, he passed the time playing with Padraig’s young son, Paddy. On Wednesday, McIlroy spotted Paddy, now 15, walking around Carnoustie with his three-time-major-winning father.

“He’s massive now – he towers over me,” he said. “It’s so funny thinking back on that day.”

But it’s also instructive. If there’s a lesson to be learned from ’07, it’s how carefree McIlroy approached and played that week. He was reminded again of that untroubled attitude while playing a practice round here with 23-year-old Jon Rahm, who stepped onto each tee, unsheathed his driver and bombed away with little regard for the wind or the bounce or the fescue. McIlroy smiled, because he remembers a time, not too long ago, that he’d attack a course with similar reckless abandon.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“I just think, as you get older, you get a little more cautious in life,” said McIlroy, 29. “I think it’s only natural. There’s something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I’ll play golf.”

And so on the eve of this Open, as he approaches the four-year anniversary of his last major title, McIlroy finds himself searching for a way to channel that happy-go-lucky 18-year-old who was about to take the world by storm, to tap into the easygoing excellence that once defined his dominance.

It’s been a year since he first hinted at what he’s been missing. Last year’s Open at Royal Birkdale was the final event of his long run with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. The chief reason for the split, he said, had nothing to do with some of the questionable on-course decisions, but rather a desire to take ownership of him game, to be freed up alongside one of his best friends, Harry Diamond.

That partnership has produced only one victory so far, and over the past few months, McIlroy has at times looked unsettled between the ropes. It’s difficult to compute, how someone with seemingly so much – a résumé with four majors, a robust bank account, a beautiful wife – can also appear disinterested and unmotivated.

“I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” he said. “A golf tournament is where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I feel like I can 100 percent be myself and express myself. Sometimes the pressure that’s put on the top guys to perform at such a level every week, it starts to weigh on you a little bit. The more I can be like that kid, the better.”

It’s a decidedly different landscape from when the erstwhile Boy Wonder last won a major, in summer 2014. Jordan Spieth had won just a single Tour event, not three majors. Dustin Johnson wasn’t world No. 1 but merely a tantalizing tease, a long-hitting, fast-living physical freak who was just beginning a six-month break to address "personal challenges." Two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka hadn’t even started playing in the States.  

McIlroy’s greatest asset, both then and now, was his driving – he put on clinics at Congressional and Kiawah, Hoylake and Valhalla. He was a mainstay at or near the top of the strokes gained: tee to green rankings, but over the past few years, because of better technology, fitness and coaching, the gap between him and the rest of the field has shrunk.

“I think at this stage players have caught up,” Harrington said. “There’s many players who drive the ball comparable and have certainly eaten into that advantage. Rory is well on pace to get into double digits with majors, but it has got harder. There’s no doubt there’s more players out there who are capable of having a big week and a big game for a major. It makes it tough.”

It’s not as though McIlroy hasn’t had opportunities to add to his major haul; they’ve just been less frequent and against stronger competition. In the 13 majors since he last won, he’s either finished in the top 10 or missed the cut in 11 of them. This year, he played in the final group at the Masters, and was on the verge of completing the career Grand Slam, before a soul-crushing 74 on the last day. His U.S. Open bid was over after nine holes, after an opening 80 and a missed cut during which he declined to speak to reporters after both frustrating rounds.

“I’m trying,” he said Wednesday. “I’m trying my best every time I tee it up, and it just hasn’t happened.”

A year after saying that majors are the only events that will define the rest of his career, he recently shrugged off the doom and gloom surrounding his Grand Slam drought: “It doesn’t keep me up at night, thinking, If I never won another major, I can’t live with myself.”

Eleven years ago, McIlroy never would have troubled himself with such trivial questions about his legacy. But perhaps a return to Carnoustie, to where his major career started, is just what he needs to unlock his greatness once again.