NORTON, Mass. – TPC Boston is familiar ground for Tiger Woods. He won here in 2006, finished runner-up to Phil Mickelson in a clash of the titans in 2007 and proceeds from the event benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation.
But on Thursday under sweltering skies and the threat of a hurricane named Earl everything must have seemed as new as freshly fallen snow. Make no mistake, the world No. 1 is entering uncharted waters, like Indian summers in New England and a Red Sox pennant bid that wanes long before October.
Never before has Woods started a tournament under the looming reality that if he doesn’t play well at the Deutsche Bank Championship he won’t be playing at all for the rest of the Playoffs.
Not in this lifetime has his Ryder Cup fate depended on the hospitality of a captain’s pick.
Only in Bizarro World would Woods have imagined that he would have the same number of victories in September that he had in January. And only in his nightmares would he have envisioned an empty house and broken family back home in central Florida.
But times have indeed changed.
In very practical terms, the season of change is on display this week south of Boston, and central to this competitive paradigm shift is a cerebral Canadian whose father was a chemist and whose mind never stops.
Post-Nov. 26 there are few, if any, questions Tiger Woods is not prepared for, but on Thursday on the eve of the Deutsche Bank Championship he was asked what were the fundamental swing differences between Butch Harmon, his original instructor when he turned pro, Hank Haney, who took over for Harmon in March 2004, and Sean Foley, the newest edition to Team Tiger who started publically working with Woods at last month’s PGA Championship.
“Well,” Woods paused, “they are three different philosophies, three different ways to hit a golf ball.
“There’s a lot of learning to different philosophies, and that’s probably the biggest thing is you first have to understand the philosophy in order to buy into it and then be committed to it. That’s been kind of where I was at.”
If that doesn’t exactly answer the question it at least walks us through the process by which Woods arrives at his fourth professional crossroads.
Unlike journalist and police investigators, Woods has little interest in the when and where. In this case it is only the why and the how that matter. Whatever the differences between the Tiger triumvirate, for Woods the road ahead is all that interests him.
Instead, we tracked down Foley, who was busy most of Thursday afternoon working with Woods and the rest of his stable on the TPC Boston practice ground, and asked how his philosophy differs from that of Harmon and Haney.
“There’s a difference in the generation,” Foley said. “There’s been a whole lot more information.”
Know this about Foley, his Tour-issued credential may read “instructor,” but he is a student of the golf swing by any measure. If Woods wants to know why the golf club continues to get “stuck” behind him on the downswing, a common culprit particularly with the driver, Foley will explain the complexities of biomechanics, physics and the principles of motivation, a detailed intellectual style that likely separates him from Haney and Harmon.
That’s not to say Foley, who at 35 is much younger than his forerunners, is unfamiliar with Harmon and Haney’s teachings.
“Those are predecessors, right? Butch (Harmon), Lead (David Leadbetter), all those guys and obviously I’ve read all their stuff. Worked on all their stuff,” Foley said.
But the die was cast at an early age when the uber-analytical student tried to comprehend a game dominated by dogma and disconnected philosophies.
“I was very scientific minded and found that things were too golf-y,” Foley said. “I found there was too much pseudo-semantics to the golf swing. This plane and that plane, but as I started reading more. I read this is a horizontal swing plane, what is that? That’s the face position at impact. I start thinking about every dimension of movement.”
What followed was a single-minded pursuit of answers. Cause and effect dominate much of the conversation when Foley is talking swing.
Foley’s swing philosophies hardly dovetail with his predecessors. But what all three seem to have in common is a reluctance to teach a single method.
There is little chance Woods’ swing will begin to mirror that of Hunter Mahan, a two-time Tour winner this year and a member of Foley’s stable, but, “(Woods) will look like him at impact.”
For Woods, whose previous swing changes took anywhere from 18 months to two years to incubate, the results have come surprisingly fast. His tie for 12th last week at The Barclays may have been his best ballstriking week of the year and he did little to hide his budding confidence on Thursday.
“I’m starting to see some progress, which is nice,” Woods said. “It’s nice to see that the things that I was trying to do earlier at the PGA I’m trying to do now.”
Although his quick turnaround may be a bit of a surprise, to say nothing of the concerns that accompany unrealistic expectations, Foley figured the best player of his generation would be a quick study and he has not disappointed.
“He’s picked everything up very fast. I would think that the greatest players would be fast learners in any sport,” Foley said. “To finish first last week (in fairways hit), I don’t care if he was hitting 3-wood. He hits his 3-wood 280 (yards).”
With that, Foley inadvertently unearths something that hasn’t changed, Woods’ ability to amaze. Over the last 10 months it has been put to the test, questioned, even dismissed in some circles, but he can still impress.
And amid the sea of change that has become Woods’s life, that’s a start.