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Friday, February 4, 2011

Should We Be Worried about Tiger?

I've been listening to the buzz surrounding Tiger's performance -- or lack of, depending on your viewpoint -- at Torrey last week, and it's been hard not to laugh.

On the one hand we have the "Tiger groupies" who insist that we should expect him to perform as he always has. This is just another swing change, and it will take hold any second now... and then all his opponents will be sorry.

On the other hand we hear the "Tiger haters" who believe that the Tiger of the past 15 years is dead and gone, Jack's record is probably safe, and what kind of idiot thinks Tiger can still play golf anyway?

I think each group is partly right... but not for the reasons they think.

Tiger has changed his swing at least twice before, and he's always amazed us by winning during the change despite obvious struggles to get the new mechanics correct. We've come to expect miracles from him. But you see, there's one big difference this time around that I haven't heard anybody mention.

In each of his previous swing rebuilds, everybody wondered why Tiger wanted to change such an obviously great swing. The reason, as Tiger has stated so often, was a desire to get better. When you start with a solid swing and try to make changes, your squirrely swings aren't really going to be that bad because you're reverting to your old swing... which wasn't so bad, thank you very much.

This time, everybody was screaming for Tiger to change a swing that obviously wasn't working. As a result, when Tiger hits a bad one now... well, it's R-E-A-L-L-Y bad. Skanky bad. Weekend hacker bad. Drop an F-bomb bad.

As a result, we aren't going to see Tiger pop back quite so soon this time. When he reverts to his old swing, the gallery's gonna need body armor. Right now, Tiger is one of us normal golfers trying to learn the "right" way to swing a club.

I'm not worried about Tiger. He's learning that he took a lot for granted. That marvelous control we've all lusted after is backfiring now because he has 10 swing thoughts in his head at once, just like you and me. He doesn't even have a low skank shot that he can count on right now -- in time he will, but it's going to take him a bit longer than it has in the past. In time I believe he'll hit the ball as well as he ever did, and maybe even better. A complete rebuild of your swing either destroys you or makes you better... and Tiger's too good for this to destroy him.

But he won't be able to dominate the way he did. It's no longer a question of skill or even intimidation. Rather, the rest of the Tour's been learning also:
  • They've watched Tom Watson fall one stroke short of another major at the age of 59, and learned that age isn't necessarily a barrier.
  • They've watched an average-length hitter named Steve Stricker hold his own using a much simpler technique against Tiger when Tiger was still playing well, and learned that lack of length isn't a problem.
  • They've watched Adam Scott struggle with a swing very similar to Tiger's 2000 swing, a swing method which nobody thought could be beat, and learned that mechanical skill isn't as important as they once thought.
  • They've watched Sergio struggle, and learned that talent is overrated.
  • And they've seen the European players reach the top of the world rankings playing in tournaments that didn't get many ranking points because Tiger wasn't there. Granted, if Tiger hadn't backed up over the last year they wouldn't have reached #1... but common logic said they shouldn't have gotten close enough to take even a fallen Tiger, given how few ranking points they got. So apparently they've learned that if you play well consistently enough, the system can be beaten.
The result is that most players no longer believe you have to play like Tiger to beat Tiger. All you really have to do is learn how to score. Do that and you can hold your own against anybody... even a healthy Tiger.

That's something that maybe Tiger should worry about.


  1. I think you're right that the guys have reached the point where the women's game was a few years ago, as it became clear Annika was catchable and eventually that Lorena was human. They bowed out too soon for many people to realize they were getting outplayed more and more often by a larger and larger chase pack, and now the chasers are trying to figure out how to be frontrunners. Looking at early results in '11, I'd say Ya Ni Tseng and Ji-Yai Shin are ready to roll! Ya Ni's won in Taiwan and just fired a bogey-free 67 to match Ji-Yai's from the 1st round of the Australian Women's Open.... Plus it looks like Eun-Hee Ji is starting to find her game again, Tiffany Joh and Mariajo Uribe may be able to egg each other on to greatness--and it's only the 1st really big ALPG-LET week of the season! I'm pumped!

    You going to do a Ruthless Golf women's ranking this year?

  2. Oh, and wouldn't it be interesting if Jennifer Song turns out to be much readier for prime time than Lexi Thompson?

  3. Should you really use phrases like "skanky bad" in an article about Woods ? (bah-dum-bum) :-)

    It's too soon to say that Woods won't dominate again. After the year he had last year, it seems unlikely that he'll be playing and winning like he did before the '08 US Open - but he has been written off a few other times in his career, and we all know what he did after those stories came out.

    The only thing we do know right now is that there are a small handful of guys here and on the European Tour who look like they are strong enough to go head to head with Woods if he gets his game back.

    Let's hope Woods gets himself righted so we can see if one of these new guys can "be the man who beats the man".

  4. TC - I've been considering a Ladies RGWR, but first I definitely want to work the bugs out doing just one. My ranking isn't as scientific as most -- as I've said, I give a lot of weight to wins and recent form (up to 12 months) -- and that makes it hard to avoid appearing arbitrary. For example, Jhonattan Vegas suddenly appeared on my ranking because I gave him credit for a Nationwide win and the Venezuela Open, but it would be fair to question why Ryo Ishikawa hasn't been included since he's played so well in Japan. I've still got some work to do on my system before I expand it.

    And I wouldn't be surprised if Jenny seems to come from nowhere this year and make a huge splash. Again, I point to Jhonattan Vegas. I heard Brandel Chamblee and TGC's other commentators on Thursday wondering how JV got this far without being noticed... and yet TGC was the only channel broadcasting his play last year! I don't spend a lot of time watching the Nationwide, yet I knew who he was and had made note to keep an eye on him this year. Jenny's under the radar right now; that might not last for long!

    Court -- Yeah, I think "skanky" is fine. Golf is a harsh mistress, you know... ;-)

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I'd never write Tiger off like some of the commentators I've heard. I do think this swing change will take longer to make simply because it has to go deeper and fix problems, not just improve an existing good swing. But Stricker was in worse shape when his swing left him, and he didn't have the winning background that Tiger does to draw on. Tiger's got something to prove now; it's just a matter of finding a good mental balance so he doesn't try too hard and get in his own way.

    I don't expect Tiger to win a major this year, although I think he may get a regular win or two late. All bets are off in 2012, though. And I still think he'll catch Jack... and probably pass him by a couple.

  5. oh yes - I haven't had a good night of sleep since before Thanksgiving 2009. (lol)