Sunday, April 8, 2012

But It IS a Mechanical Problem

It seems like every sports commentator on every channel is convinced that Tiger Woods is thinking "mechanics" when he should be thinking "golf." But that's what Tiger should be thinking about.

After all, Tiger's problem IS a mechanical one.

I know most of the golf blogs will be writing about Phil's amazing back 9 -- and rightfully so, he deserves it -- but somebody needs to set the record straight about Tiger. Since many of my conclusions about Tiger's swing over the past couple of years have proven to be right (many of you read them as I posted them), I want to tell you where I see the evolution of Tiger's swing going.

First, let me "reframe" what has already happened:

Back in the late 1990s a teenaged Tiger went to Butch Harmon for a swing rebuild. Many people didn't understand why, but it's pretty clear if you look at the old footage. Tiger was a great player, but he had a huge move off the ball on his backswing. This first rebuild was indeed an attempt to improve his swing, and Tiger played well even while he made changes. That's because you revert to your old swing when you "backslide" during a swing change, and Tiger's old swing was still a pretty effective swing.

But somewhere along the line it became clear that the "Butch swing" wasn't perfect. Tiger began to experience knee problems because he snapped his left knee violently during his downswing. It was during this time that Tiger changed teachers from Butch to Hank Haney. I don't remember where I got the information (I wasn't writing this blog at the time, so it didn't seem important) but I was under the impression that Tiger made the change to try and eliminate the knee snap, not to "perfect his swing" as I have heard many people say. Tiger has made it clear over the last year or so that he was having continuous pain back around 2005 or so, and I seem to recall him having knee surgery shortly after he started working with Hank.

This seemed logical to me at the time. Tiger's swing has always been relatively upright, and Butch didn't change that. Moving to a flatter, more rotary swing made sense as a way to eliminate the knee snap and help ease the knee pain. And again, Tiger played well during the transition because when his "backslidden" swing was the Butch swing, which worked pretty well. (I should also mention that Hank had previously gone public with his own battles against driver yips -- in the August 2004 issue of Golf Digest -- and Tiger may have figured Hank could help him straighten out his driver. But I was under the impression at the time that the knee problem was his primary motivation for change.)

The plan apparently didn't work. Tiger's natural motion is upright, not flat, and soon he was making compensations. All the head dipping and squatting became a constant point of criticism during TV swing analyses, but they were compensations that allowed Tiger to think about playing rather than his swing mechanics. However, he continued to snap his knee badly enough that he required more knee surgery.

As impressive as the 2008 "broken leg" US Open may have been, it set Tiger back much more than he ever let on. (Tiger never talked about his pains until recently. That would have shown weakness, right?) I think the damage was much worse than we knew because, although he won 6 or 7 tournaments in 2009, I remember thinking his game appeared to be "off" somehow. I couldn't put my finger on it, he just didn't look sharp. After the car accident, I initially chalked it up to mounting mental pressure. After all, it made sense that the house of cards had begun falling earlier in the year.

But then we started seeing a lot of missed tournaments because of the constant injuries, and soon Hank was history and Sean Foley was the new guru. Everybody started talking about yet another attempt to "perfect his swing." Yet when Tiger was asked why he was changing his swing, he said simply, "Because I can't get in those positions anymore."

I noted all these things in a post after one of Tiger's pressers during Masters Week in 2011 and how they demonstrated that Tiger's reasons for change had as much to do with injury as improvement. I wrote in this March 2011 post comparing Tiger's different swings that with the Foley swing:
...he really is closer to his original swing than with either the "Butch" or "Haney" swing. This swing is very similar to his original swing except his weight is more on the left side than the right. Eliminate the dipping, and I believe this would actually be a better swing than he started with.
After a presser Tiger did in December I wrote:
The statement was a simple one. Tiger was asked what had changed about his swing and why he was playing so much better now. He said he had known what he wanted to do and what he needed to do, he just couldn't do it. (A lot of that was health-related, of course.) He talked about the time it took to learn the new approach Sean Foley was teaching him. He talked about how it took a while to understand what he was doing wrong when he made mistakes. And then he said -- and I believe this is the exact quote -- "Sean has me in a position I recognize."
And I added:
It's no secret that I think Tiger and Sean have been trying to go back to his teenage swing -- minus that big move off the ball that Tiger eliminated under Butch Harmon's care.
Then during the Abu Dhabi tournament earlier this year I wrote:
In his media presser after Saturday's round Tiger confirmed that he and Sean had done exactly that, and that Sean had actually pulled out old video footage of Tiger's teenage swing to help him see where they were going. As far as I know, I'm the only person who made the connection and put it in writing, so I'm feeling pretty smug right now. (And I'm enjoying it, as I don't get to feel smug very often.)
And yet I keep hearing commentators say that Tiger's problems aren't mechanical. They most certainly are! Sean Foley and Tiger are clearly trying to create a swing that allows him to make his natural moves without tearing up his knee. If that's not a mechanical problem, what is?

I also need to point out that, unlike the Butch and Hank swing changes, this time Tiger doesn't have a working swing that he can fall back on when he "backslides." When he doesn't make the new pain-free motions, he makes a bad swing. Period.

We're seeing indications that Tiger and Sean know what they're doing. He's been relatively pain-free for around 6 months. (I can tell you from experience that Achilles tendon injuries heal very slowly, especially as you get older.) He's had some moments of brilliance, like the final round 62 at Honda and the 5-stroke win at Bay Hill. But their work isn't about "perfecting his swing," it's about prolonging his career. Tiger's frustrated because he's progressing in starts and stops, but that's what happens when anybody tries to learn something new... even the great Tiger Woods. Last time I checked, he was human too.

Let me leave you with this final thought: Shortly after Tiger had changed from Butch to Hank, he did an interview in the booth during a tournament with NBC. He was asked how long a swing change takes. Tiger said it should only take about 2 or 3 months, but it actually takes about 15 months because you go out and play, backslide, and have to work to undo the backsliding.

In February, after Phil beat Tiger at Pebble, I wrote this:
I know everybody talks about him [Tiger] having worked with Sean Foley since late 2010. But since he wasn't healthy enough to do any continuous work until after the PGA Championship last year, I don't see this as more than maybe 8 or 9 months of useful work... I know everyone is bummed out because Tiger lost Sunday. (Well, Phil isn't... but that's another story.) Don't despair, Tiger fans. He's a long way from finished, and he's got plenty of time to beat Jack's record. As for his swing, Tiger has always said it takes 15 months or so for him to "own" a new one. He may win before then, but we should withhold any judgments about his future until we see what he's like in June or July. I suspect things will look quite different by then.
By my figuring, Tiger's 15 months aren't up yet. Just wait until the Open Championship, folks. We'll see how much trouble Tiger has playing "mechanics" instead of "golf" then.

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