October 22, 2016

What happened to Tiger's chipping?


It is general knowledge that Tiger Woods is struggling with his short game.  Many have diagnosed the problem as a case of the “Yips”.  It probably is the main reason for his reluctance to return to competition.  Without a first-class short game, it is nearly impossible to win a major championship.  Lee Westwood is a prime example of an excellent all-around player, who has only a mediocre short game.  You come close, but that little flaw will show up and thwart your title bid.  If you have the “Yips”, then it is impossible, because a missed green will automatically result in a lost shot.  Championships are won by saving and gaining shots around the green, not by merely being average with your wedge play.

I have two stories that I would like to relate that both illustrate the importance of a strong short game.  Tom Kite gave a speech at the PGA Teaching Summit over 20 years ago to about 400 PGA teaching professionals.   He first showed a clip of his golf swing in about 1978.  It was not the most proficient or pretty swing and it resulted in errant shots when under duress.  He decided that he needed to make a swing change in order to compete at a higher level and give himself a better shot at winning a major championship.  He then showed a clip of the finished product some 10 to 15 years later after he made the decision to change his swing.  It was a much more efficient and repeatable swing and did produce a major championship win, the 1992 US Open.  During his swing change, he confessed that he struggled mightily in making the changes he felt necessary.  He acknowledged that he would stand in the fairway and really didn’t know where the ball was going to go.  It could be twenty yards right of twenty yards left!  He was that unsure, but the one thing that he did know was that he was going to make par.  That’s how good his short game was.  For a ten year stretch, while he was struggling and making his major swing change, he was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour for that period. He stated that his “up and down” percentage was around 90%.   I question that number, but it still had to be the best or near best on tour and magnifies the importance of a stellar short game.

In 2004, I watched Tiger Woods play the first round of Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Classic (now the Arnold Palmer Invitational).  He had just changed coaches and was working on the swing changes that Hank Haney had implemented.  He was constantly making practice swings, sometimes ten swings between shots, and was definitely playing “golf swing” and not trusting his swing.  It looked very mentally and mechanically driven, but he wanted to test it in competition and see the results.  I was fortunate to have a couple of short conversations with Hank Haney during that round and he gave me some insights into what they were working on and Tiger’s mental and physical program.  There had been numerous physical changes and Tiger was noticeably slow in his pre-shot routine and time over that ball before starting his swing.  Even with a less than ideal ball striking, he still got the ball around the course in a five under 67, which was one shot off the lead.  On that particular day, he took full advantage of all his scoring opportunities with great putting and superb wedge play.  The contrast between full swing and short game routines was day and night.  One was long and thought-out and the other confident even-flowing and natural.  Tiger knew exactly what needed to be done with his wedge shots and putting.  No need to overthink, just see it and do it.

Tiger’s chipping and pitching motion remained basically unchanged from his earliest beginnings playing the short Hartwell 3-par golf course in Long Beach.  Minor changes were added, but the basics remained.  Haney didn’t make changes to the short game.  Sean Foley changed the fundamentals of the short game, which didn’t need changing.  It was like messing with DNA, it was that ingrained. Tiger mentally and physically made the chipping and pitching change.  He talked about new angles, swing paths and release points.  A natural movement that he had done since three years old was now being relearned with the outside hope of even being better then he already was, which some would claim was the best in the world.  The mere idea sounds stupid to make such a change.  But he did complete the change, but it wasn’t as natural or instinctive.  Bad shots occurred and the blame was on technique.  More work on technique and more mental pressure on doing a very intricate precise movement that is more feel then mechanical. 

Tiger now is caught between old and new, but the old can never be fully regained because it has been altered.  He can come close to that form, but he has to give up his controlling nature of that shot.  One of the insights that Hank Haney shared with me was that Tiger was a perfectionist and wanted full authority over everything.  He had that control of that shot before, which he came by instinctively. He altered his control by going away from feel to a more programmed movement.  If we are going to see the old Tiger, we will see the player I watched at Bay Hill in 2004.   What we should learn is don’t fool with excellence, because once it’s gone it’s hard to regain.



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