Interview: Hank Haney, former coach of Tiger Woods
TIGER Woods’ former coach Hank Haney is used to ill-informed criticism of his new book but he insists it’s all about the golf
When we talked, Hank Haney was sitting in a car somewhere on Interstate 95. A full day spent at ESPN headquarters in Connecticut was behind him and a series of media appointments in New York City would fill most of the next 24 hours. And so it has gone. The author of The Big Miss, the story of his six years coaching Tiger Woods – who many believe is the greatest golfer of all time – has been on quite the publicity circuit since the most eagerly anticipated golf book in years was published last Monday.
There have, of course, been many questions for him to answer. Golf, a sport not short of those for whom pretentiousness and pomposity are first, second and third nature, has not been slow to charge Haney with an unnecessary, tasteless and dollar-driven betrayal of his former charge. Some, rather comically, have even compared the coach/student relationship with that of doctor/patient in its need for discretion and secrecy.
At least in the minds of those who spend their lives looking for new and ever more inventive ways to be offended, the golf swing has suddenly been elevated from over-analysed athletic move into a matter of life and death.
“When I decided to write the book I took the fact that I would be criticised into consideration,” shrugs Haney. “And I made that decision a long time ago. I was comfortable with it then and I’m comfortable with it now. I wanted to write the book. I wanted to share my experiences and my time with Tiger. I wanted to tell people how great a player he is, how complex he is as a person and how that contributes to his greatness. I still do, which is why I’m fine with my decision.
“I expected to be criticised. I expected people to disagree with me. But my decision was made. And it is one I have no regrets about. I’ve read so much of the criticism that, to be honest, I’ve grown immune to it. It’s amazing how personal people get. There’s so much hatred out there. It’s OK to hold a different opinion, but there is no need for some of the vitriol I’ve been subjected to.”
Of that there has been plenty, much of it generated pre-publication by those whose only information was a disappointingly non-golfy excerpt in Golf Digest. To say that said excerpt did not fairly represent the book’s overall content – which is probably 95 per cent concentrated on Woods’ on-course issues – is a rather large understatement.
“People have accused me of writing about Tiger’s marriage,” sighs Haney. “But they have done so after reading one-line excerpts. The first mention of Elin is when Tiger told her ‘we don’t celebrate’ because he is supposed to win. That has nothing to do with their marriage and everything to do with Tiger putting successes in the past and thinking only of the future. The story illustrates that. No one who has actually read the book thinks I was commenting at any stage on Tiger’s marriage. The biggest criticism I’ve had from those people is, ‘you shouldn’t have written the book’. But I did. So at some point they need to get past that. We have to agree to disagree. I mention Elin again when I’m teaching Tiger for the first time after the scandal. She happened to be there. And it was uncomfortable. But that was affecting Tiger’s preparation. So it was relevant to his golf. Another mention comes when I told her I didn’t know anything about what was going on behind the scenes.
“So it was basically all about his golf. If something personal came up that had nothing to do with golf, I left it out. And that was the case many times. I left out any number of things I could have used and every time I went with my gut feeling. If it didn’t pertain to Tiger’s golf, it didn’t go in. I went over the book eight times before it was published. And every time I took something out.”
More disturbing for Haney – an honest soul – have been the attacks on the veracity of his 247-page volume.
“It’s been weird,” he continues. “Everyone in the world wants to ask me about Tiger. And now that I have responded, I’m a bad guy? I suppose that makes sense to someone. Of course, Tiger’s secretiveness has contributed to that level of interest. Even the most trivial details of his life have become fascinating to so many people. So, again, the various reactions have come as no surprise. And nothing that happens in the coming days, weeks and months will be unexpected either.
“I stand by my story. Everything in the book is true, as it was told to me.
“Tiger is the one who showed me the bruise on his leg when he got shot with the rubber bullet at the Navy SEAL thing. He’s the one who told me he went parachuting. He’s the one who told me he went shooting with the Navy guys. He’s the one who told me that he went through self-defence training. He’s the one who told me the SEALs were going to change their age-limit requirements to accommodate him. He’s the one who told me he didn’t care about breaking Jack Nicklaus’ major record and that, if his career ended at that moment, he’d be fine with it.”
The level of Woods’ apparent obsession with anything and everything SEAL-related is perhaps the biggest revelation in the book.
“At the time when he was so into the Navy SEAL stuff, there was quite a dip in Tiger’s work ethic,” reveals Haney. “That may surprise people because of his reputation for hard work and seemingly endless dedication to every aspect of his craft. But it looks like he has that back. He’s clearly practising hard again. So maybe that was just a phase he went through. Tiger is always at his most aroused or stimulated when he is trying something new or working on a different move. That’s why he has always switched coaches – he has to. That’s just his personality. He loves to work on new things. That’s when he is really at the height of his dedication and motivation. Of course, the book is surely part of that motivation at the moment. He’s always looking for things to get himself going. It’s like: ‘I’ll show them.’ He’s like all great achievers in that respect.”
Still, Haney is used to criticism. Over the course of his six years in charge of the Woods action, he was subjected to all manner of brickbats, mainly from those who felt that Tiger’s swing was better under his previous coach, Butch Harmon. Not surprisingly, Haney begs to differ on that score, the closing chapter of the book trotting out all manner of statistics to back up that claim.
“I detail everything I worked on with his swing,” points out Haney. “And why. Our biggest aim was to eliminate the ‘big miss’ to the left, which he hates. Then there was his knee. That was always a consideration. We had to come up with a swing that would help it last as long as it physically could. When we started working together, he told me he had only 20 per cent of his anterior cruciate ligament intact. Those were the two main goals and the things I had to work around as best I could. Even after his knee was repaired, there was always concern that it could ‘go’ again.
“In the last chapter I produce all the numbers that show Tiger’s record under my tutelage wasn’t somehow less than it could have been.
“I wanted to set that record straight and explain to people how well he actually played. This is a coaching book too. I wanted to explain to people what it was like to coach such a great athlete. I wanted to explain the obstacles I faced. Butch Harmon told me when I started it was harder than it looks and he was right. Tiger’s team can be a tough team to be on. And I wanted everyone to know the facts behind Tiger’s play. This is his record in detail. All people have to do is look at the numbers – they speak for themselves.”
As for the future, Haney is already happily into retirement as far as coaching tour players is concerned, having made the decision when he got the “Tiger gig” that he would be his last pupil.
But Woods, of course, is hopefully far from finished. And Haney, like the rest of us, can’t wait to see what is going to happen over the next few years.
“Looking forward, Tiger is clearly going to win plenty of tournaments,” he declares. “I can’t see him winning 45 per cent of them though, as he did with me the last three years of our time together. But he will win plenty, although Nicklaus’ major record (18 victories against Tiger’s current 14) is another thing.
“To break Jack’s record, Tiger has to get into contention more than he has done and then win more often. That won’t be easy, even for him. The competition today is stronger. And, of course, he is getting older. I don’t see too many players starting to putt better in their late 30s.
“There’s pressure on him to win at least one major this year. If he doesn’t, the drought since his last one will be four years long.
“He is playing well right now, though. He is driving the ball better. But, as John Jacobs always taught me, it all comes down to distance control. And Tiger’s isn’t as good as it was under me. He is 170th on tour from 75-100 yards. He is 134th from 100-125 yards. So that’s an issue. Then, of course, there is his putting. Right now, he is 130th in ‘three-putt avoidance’. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of going to the Masters this coming week and not three-putting, he is. But you don’t often win majors with four or five three-putts in 72 holes.”
Or with a bad swing. Which is, one suspects, what Haney is really trying to tell us.
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