Tiger Woods won for the fourth time this year at The Players Championship on Sunday.
This is the fastest he’s ever gotten to four wins in a season. Woods has only teed it up seven times this year. If it weren’t for hitting the flagstick on the fifteenth at the Masters, and the controversial drop that ensued, Woods might have had five wins.
“I’m getting better,” Woods said with a bit of false humility on Sunday when asked about his game. He’s more than just “getting better,” he’s become the best, once again. Most scary of all for the rest of the tour, he has a chance to be better than his best.
One of the biggest reasons Woods is back on top of golf is that he has finally clicked with new swing coach Sean Foley, less than three years after they started working together.
Foley, originally from Toronto, is a strange guy in the world of golf. In 2010, before he started coaching Woods, Sports Illustrated described him as, “one of the most eclectic swing instructors on the PGA Tour — combining lessons from human kinetics, physics, psychology, philosophy, and hip-hop music.”
For instance, when the Wall Street Journal asked Foley how Justin Rose, another one of his students, had improved his long-iron shots, Foley said, “Myelin.” He further clarified by saying, “That’s the insulation that wraps around neural brain circuits and helps them fire faster when presented with certain stimuli … ‘Swing change’ is really a stupid term, because it’s actually just gradual evolution in encoded brain patterns.”
In an interview with Golf magazine, he called legendary basketball coaches Phil Jackson and John Wooden his inspirations for working with Woods. He said, “They took extremely good basketball players and helped them reach their fullest potential … I wouldn’t say that I’m a golf instructor. I’m a coach.”
When Woods started working with Foley in the summer of 2010, Woods was totally lost. He was still reeling from his scandal, his marriage was coming undone, he was hurt, he couldn’t hit a putt, his long-time caddy was angry with him, and he was spraying the ball every which way.
In other words, he was Just Another Guy on the Tour, not Tiger Effing Woods, the man who struck fear in the heart of the competition forcing them to, say, plunk two balls in the water in a tight moment.
Foley was taking on a physically and mentally broken student who still attracted one of the brightest, hottest lights in all of sports. And, oh, the pay probably isn’t great. Woods old coach, Hank Haney, said he was paid $50,000 a year when he was with Woods.
For Woods’ part, he was signing up for a new, unconventional coach when he was running out of time.
He was 35, and he knew that it takes 2-3 years for a new swing to work. If Foley’s method failed, then Woods would be 38 years old and in search of a swing. He needs four more majors to break Jack Nicklaus’ major record. There aren’t a lot of 38 year-old pros without a swing that can win multiple majors.
Foley teaches a version of the swing concept called “stack and tilt.” In this method, a player keeps his weight centered, instead of shifting towards the right foot during the back swing. In the follow through, the torso flexes, and the spine tilts. The idea is to keep the player balanced, simplifying the golf swing.
One the reasons Woods was attracted to stack and tilt is that it is easier on the body. Instead of shifting his weight from left to right, then lashing back into the ball and snapping his left knee, his lower body remains relatively calm. For a guy with multiple knee injuries, a less taxing swing is a big deal.
Stack and tilt is a relatively new concept that only gained mainstream attention around 2007. Like any new concept, it’s controversial, and it’s attacked.
The talking heads in golf thought Tiger was making a huge mistake going to Foley.
Less than a year ago, lead Golf Channel’s analyst Brandel Chamblee ripped into the Woods-Foley partnership. He said, “I think he went from being more of an intuitive golfer to more of a lab experiment … I’ve seen players try to adopt the principals that Tiger is trying to adopt and they invariably don’t add up.”
He then went after Foley: “He comes up with all these catchy phrases that he thinks will put him more in the spotlight and it just doesn’t add up,” adding, “I don’t have anything against Sean Foley personally other than the fact that he is systematically robbing us of the greatest talent we have ever seen. He’s dumbing it down.”
Chamblee wasn’t the only one critical of Foley-Woods. Lots of people in the game were scratching their heads. Woods went from being a player who looked incredibly natural to one that was clearly trying to digest a bunch of new ideas.
One of the big reasons people were critical of Foley-Woods is that the established golf media has a fascination borderlining on obsession with Butch Harmon’s work with Woods. Harmon was Woods’ first coach.
When Woods made his first of three swing changes, it was with Harmon. Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes when he was 21, but he thought he could be better, so he had Harmon retool his swing.
Woods was right. Between 2000 and 2002, Woods won 19 times on the PGA Tour, with 6 majors, including a stretch where he won four majors in a row, the so-called “Tiger Slam.”
His game was so good that when he decided to drop Harmon, people were shocked. They thought that it was huge mistake. And they still do. People in golf talk about Woods’ Harmon swing as one of the greatest swings in the history of the game.
When Woods worked with Hank Haney, he posted similarly great results, but people still grumbled that he made a big mistake. When he started working with Foley, those grumbles continued.
Chamblee, for instance, said last year, “Simply, he needs to fire Sean (Foley), call Butch (Harmon).”
Woods gave the critics plenty of ammunition while he figured out the new swing.
<strong>Tiger's low point at the Masters</strong>
On the sixteenth hole at Masters in 2012, during his Friday round, Woods hit a shot out to the right, dropped his club, then kicked it. Golf is supposed to be a gentleman’s game, and Woods was making an arse of himself and the game in its cathedral, Augusta National.
At the time, CBS’s lead analyst, and six-time major winner, Sir Nick Faldo said, “He’s lost his game. And his mind.”
In retrospect, that may have proven to be the turning point for Woods. He won three times on the PGA Tour last year, and contended in the other three majors. This, despite playing what Chamblee called “one-dimensional” golf.
This year he’s the favourite in any event he plays. Woods has figured out Foley’s concepts. He is now hitting the ball as well as anyone on the tour. He’s married that ball-striking with a super sharp short game. Inside of 100 yards, he’s deadly, once again. And, his mental game is once again dominant. He knows where to miss his shots, and he can still sink the tough putt when he needs to.
Further, Woods is healthy. So he can actually practice what Foley is teaching him. A lot of people failed to grasp that Woods couldn’t practice in 2011 because he was wearing a medical boot which set back his progress under Foley.
Chamblee, for his part, is singing a different tune. Yesterday, he said, “It was very clear that this was a different Tiger, a new Tiger, this was even different from the Tiger that won three times this year. I don’t know what he’s been doing the last couple of weeks, but he’s certainly able to draw the ball, he’s certainly able to dissect the golf course, where left is dead, it was very impressive. I said earlier, it reminded me of him in 2001 when he was relentless.”
You see, Woods doesn’t need to go back to Harmon to find his form like in 2001.
He’s working with Foley, and together they’re creating something that might be even better.
Remember, the changes in equipment, nutrition, and fitness make the average player in 2013 much better than the average player in 2001. A generation of players who saw Woods working out did the same. And those players now have forgiving clubs that make their life easier. Woods beat those guys in four out of seven events this year.
Woods will not be his best until he starts winning majors. But, that’s just a matter of time. He’s putting it all together, and he’s scary good.
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