David Foster Wallace, who wrote the seminal piece on Roger Federer, titled “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” was also stunningly accurate when considering world class players of a lesser rank.
Of Michael Joyce, who was the 79th-ranked tennis player in the world when Wallace wrote of him:
“You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.”
These words ring in my ear when I think about the absurdity of what it means to be the best in the world at something. And then when I think about what Tiger Woods did, it is not just unimaginable, it is unfathomable.
Just 20 men have ascended to the No. 1 ranking in golf; but only one man did it with four different golf swings. To be fair, who in their right mind would think of such a thing? If one got to No. 1 in the world rankings with a certain golf swing, it stands to reason that he would forever try to duplicate that swing.
For that reason, Woods’ swing changes make him the most enigmatic sports figure of all time. Not just because the changes were manifestly unnecessary, but because with each of the swings he was so dominant – and yet they were so completely different from one another.
I’m not talking about a minor change in the grip or takeaway, something that only the player thinks is massively different, but everyone else in the world has to squint to see. I’m talking about razing Buckingham Palace and building the Kremlin in the exact same spot, only to blow it up and erect the Vatican and then change your mind, tear it down and build a castle instead.
Tiger said he made the changes to get better. But no better golf had ever been played. There was only change for change’s sake. And Tiger adores change as sharks like blood in the water.
So here are the four swings that made Woods, in my mind, by far the best player who ever played the game.
The swing Tiger used from the summer 1993 to the summer 1997
What I call his Masters swing (so named after his record-breaking performance at Augusta in April 1997) had several prominent features. He had a wide stance, a strong grip, a huge move off the ball to the right while keeping the flex in his right knee, a short arm swing and shoulder turn that was right at 120 degrees.
At the top of his swing, the club face was shut and well across the line. But well before he reached the top of his swing he began to shift his entire body back to the left – his legs, hips and back, like someone pulling one end of a rubber-band, while his shoulders continued to turn to the right, in effect pulling the other end of the rubber-band. Then, as his hips started rotating counter-clockwise, his right heel came off the ground so he could use the ball of his right foot to push up as the left side of his body extended and rotated in one fluid, unbroken, magnificent explosion that lifted the entire left side of his body off the ground.
Each move performed in perfect sequence, was a multiplier of force that created a hip speed not seen since Ben Hogan, and a never before seen with such brilliance. It is simply not possible to swing the club better than he did then. With this swing he won three U.S. Amateurs in a row, around 25 percent of his PGA Tour events and the Masters by 12 shots.
He became No. 1 in the world with his Masters swing on June 15, 1997, less than a year after turning pro.
The swing Tiger used from the summer of 1997 to March 15, 2004
What I call his Grand Slam swing (so named for obvious reasons) was a more collaborative design between him and Butch Harmon. His grip wasn’t as strong and his stance wasn’t as wide as before, but he still had a big move off the ball. Less squat into the right knee and a deeper hip turn gave him a much bigger arm swing that looked more symmetrical to his shoulder turn, which was still massive in the 120-degree range. At the top, the club was in that slot tour pros call “down the line,” meaning it was pointed more or less parallel to his target. In transition, he still moved in two different directions, his body drifting towards the target as his shoulders stretched around to the right, and then they impossibly – but gracefully – changed direction.
Watching him on the range Tuesday at the 2000 U.S. Open, I was most in awe of his transition, when the body was moving in two different directions at once and acceleration was imminent. I always expected a burst of speed there, but the club just continued to gather at the top, sort of like Michael Jordan hanging in the air when you think he should be coming down. The club just took a beat longer to reverse itself and then began its spectacular circular track back towards the ball. The right heel lifting, the ball of the right foot pushing up as the hips rotated, and his left side stretched to what looks like 10 feet tall, time and again lifting his entire frame off the ground. No question it was violent, but then it was also elegant.
This is the swing that won four consecutive majors, won six tournaments in a row, won 38 percent of the events he played in 1999 and 45 percent of the events he played in 2000. This is the swing that won the U.S. Open by 15, The Open by eight and set a Vardon Trophy record of 67.79.
He was No. 1 in the world with his Grand Slam swing for 264 consecutive weeks, from 1999 to September 2004.
His Hank Haney swing began on March 15, 2004 and began to erode shortly after the 2010 Masters.
I am amazed at how matter-of-factly people in my business will dismiss this swing as his worst, or the one that most needed changing. When I hear these types of dismissals I know they are judging the swing from an aesthetic bias – some line or position they like to see the club in, because they most certainly are not looking at the facts. The facts are that from just about any criteria one uses to judge the success of a swing philosophy, this was Tiger’s most successful move.
Hank weakened Tiger’s grip, to almost Hoganesque position, with the Vs of both hands more or less pointed at his chin. His takeaway was still wide and shifted to the right, but was more out and around with his arm and wrists, where they would rotate clockwise, putting the club at the top in a slightly flatter position – what most would agree was laid off, meaning that instead of the club pointing parallel to the target at the top, it was pointed to the left.
Because he had not moved off the ball as much in the backswing, his head dropped a little. And no longer needing to move as much left in the transition his head dropped some more on the downswing. He still lifted his right heel so he could push off the ball of his foot as he rotated and extended into the finish, still coming off the ground with the left side of his body. From 2005-09 he won an otherworldly 41 percent of his PGA Tour events, winning seven in a row in one stretch and five in a row in another. In 2007, his scoring average was 67.79, to the hundredth of a stroke exactly the same as the year 2000.
He was No. 1 in the world with his Hank Haney swing for 281 consecutive weeks, breaking his own record with a swing that was unrecognizable to the one he used to set the previous mark.
At the 2010 PGA Championship, Woods started working with Sean Foley.
Sean was working with a much older and much more fragile Tiger. No doubt this affected to what extent Foley could get Tiger to do what he wanted him to do, but after dealing with injuries through 2011, Tiger began winning again in 2012.
The Sean Foley swing returned Tiger’s grip back to a stronger position, but gone was the move off the ball and the wide takeaway. Tiger’s head was stationary and as a result he lost the momentum of a big shift to the right. And whether he was searching for a powerful position or Sean told him to, he began to squat on the downswing. His swing became much shorter and flatter. The more compact swing left less time to generate speed and less space to move in two directions. His swing became far less graceful and much more violent. He would drop more in his downswing and his right heel stayed on the ground, robbing him of the push up and giving him a more pronounced push left. This combination of loss of height and lateral movement made it impossible for Tiger to square the club without a simultaneous jumping of his body while holding a big angle in the club’s release. Tiger won three times in 2012, and in one of the greatest comebacks in golf’s history he won five times and was named Player of the Year at 37 years old in 2013.
He was No. 1 in the world with the Sean Foley swing from March 2013 until May 2014.
In total, Tiger spent 683 weeks as the top-ranked player in the world and won more PGA Tour events than all but one man in history and more majors than all but one man as well. Both speak to his dominance and longevity, but the fact that he has never missed back-to-back cuts on the PGA Tour as a pro (Phil Mickelson has done so 19 times and Jordan Spieth has already done so twice) speaks to his unmatched determination even when winning wasn’t likely.
In looking back at the works of geniuses over the last 2,000 years – of which I am admittedly not an expert, but nonetheless passionate about – the closest example I could find to the equivalent of Tiger’s obsession to create something perfect at the expense of something never before seen – to build and destroy – was Roman poet Virgil, who spent 11 years writing the Aeneid, a 9,896-line epic poem that is considered the greatest such poem ever written and one of the world’s preeminent classics. On his deathbed, he demanded that the work be thrown in the fire because it lacked the precision he had in mind. The emperor of Rome at the time, Augustus, knew the poem’s worth and intervened. It is largely through the Aeneid, that Virgil owes his lasting fame.
But then again, Virgil only tried to destroy one masterpiece, Tiger Woods did so four times. And as we all settle in to watch this week’s Hero World Challenge, he is working on his fifth such iteration. Winning four more majors to tie Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 seems impossible with the injuries sustained and the swing changes not yet cemented. But as time gnaws on his body and mind, wouldn’t it be something if he could win four more tournaments and break Sam Snead’s mark of 82 Tour victories. And just for fun take a fifth new swing to No. 1 in the world rankings.