LIKE everyone else with even a passing interest in golf, swing coach Hank Haney has watched the play of Tiger Woods over the last couple of months with a mixture of shock and horror. Duffing and “knifing” chips, pitches and bunker shots (never mind the latest back problems that precipitated his withdrawal from the Farmers Insurance Open on Thursday) Woods currently provokes almost universal sympathy where once there was a polarising mix of antipathy and adoration.
But here’s the thing. Unlike the rest of us, Haney isn’t completely taken aback by how his former student’s short game – the pair worked together for six years until 2009 – has descended from peerless to pitiful.
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“I am surprised by the severity of what we have seen,” says Haney. “But if I look at Tiger’s history he has had those shots in his bag for a while. I remember at the 2008 US Open a routine pitch he had from below the 13th green. He chunked [duffed] it. I asked his caddie Steve Williams what happened and his response was, ‘he yipped it with his knees. He did that knee-dip thing’. That was the first time I had seen that.
“Subsequently, we would pitch a few balls every day at Isleworth before Tiger began to hit full shots. He never miss-hit one. I always marvelled at that. The bottom of his swing was perfect every time. But that changed. Every once in a while, he would chunk one. It wasn’t that often, but when someone has hit none like that in five years, you notice.”
More recently, Woods was a pathetic sight at his own tournament just before Christmas. Eight times he laid the sod over straightforward chip shots, alerting the world to the possibility he might have the dreaded “yips”. In Phoenix last week, that scenario was repeated, with Woods taking refuge – as all chipping yippers do – in straight-faced clubs. Clearly scared of the loft on his wedges, the 14-time major champion was reduced to hitting totally inappropriate chip-and-runs. It was ugly stuff.
The problem, according to Woods, was technical. He blamed a change in “release point” – whatever that means – for his travails. He also claimed to have been working hard on embedding the new technique. But Haney has his doubts about that.
“After all that went on at Isleworth in December, Tiger came back with the line that he had hit ‘thousands and thousands and thousands’ of chips before Phoenix last week,” he says. “I wonder when he did that. He said he was sick for a month over the holidays. Then he was in Mexico and Houston designing courses. He was in Italy watching his girlfriend ski. He was getting his tooth fixed. And he presumably spent time with his kids. Yet he found time to hit ‘thousands and thousands and thousands’ of chips?”
Whatever the reality behind the scenes, the on-going implications for Woods are potentially dire. Chipping yips have finished the careers of big names before now. Former USPGA champion Hal Sutton is one who walked away, cursing the demons preventing him from hitting what should be relatively simple shots. Former European Ryder Cup player David Gilford is another. Of the present generation, South African Tim Clark is a sufferer, albeit he manages to “play round” his affliction with not inconsiderable success.
“Tiger’s not going to say he has the yips,” continues Haney. “He’s too proud for that. So he has to come up with an alternative explanation. And he doesn’t have many options. The only viable one he really has is the one he came up with: a new swing pattern he isn’t used to yet. What worries me most is that he is ‘blading’ both sand shots and pitch shots from rough. The bottom of the swing is clearly important on pitch and chip shots played from tight lies on the fairway, but there is a huge margin for error in the sand and longer grass. Within reason, you can hit pretty much anywhere behind the ball. But he can’t even get that right. So this ‘bottom of the swing’ excuse isn’t credible. If he doesn’t have the yips why is he having so much trouble on shots where the bottom of the swing is relatively unimportant?”
Even worse, Woods has long had similar issues with the longest club in his bag. For years, his driving has veered between poor and incredibly bad, his shots from first tees across the globe especially inaccurate. By way of example, Woods found the Barry Burn well left of the opening fairway during the 2007 Open at Carnoustie – with an iron. And at that winning 2008 US Open, Woods twice began rounds with a double bogey, the direct results of wild tee shots.
“Tiger does seem to have regained some speed with the driver,” observes Haney. “But all that means is he is hitting the ball farther off line. And he did just that in Phoenix. The first shot there is not that hard, maybe a 3-wood off the tee to leave a wedge to the green. But Tiger almost hit his tee shot out of bounds way on the right.”
Such events are horribly reminiscent of another iconic career, that of Seve Ballesteros. The late, great Spaniard retained his red-hot short game to the end of his tragically short life, but well before then his ball striking resembled that of a five-handicapper more than a five-time major champion. It was car-crash stuff. While no one could take their eyes off Seve’s struggles, no one wanted to watch them either. And the same is true of Tiger.
“Tiger can’t keep showing up at tournaments doing what he is doing now,” says Haney. “The worst yips you can have are chipping. You can’t go to a ‘long chipper’ like you can a long putter. Plus, Tiger doesn’t have this problem in only one part of his game. And no one in history has made the yips go away in a matter of days.”
Looking closely, it does seem as if Woods understands the extent of his predicament. Recently, there has been a change in his previously near-impervious personality. Where he used to be uncomfortable if those around him were comfortable, now he’s laughing and joking with fellow competitors. In Phoenix he was even making jokes with reporters – not normally his favourite people – after shooting 82.
To the more cynical observer, Tiger is retreating into what in golf is known as “Nick Faldo mode”. At the height of his career, Faldo was the most self-absorbed and unapproachable so-and-so on tour. Then, towards the end of his time as a player, he became jovial Nick the funny man. In a less marked way, Tiger appears to be doing something similar. Is he already setting the stage for his retirement?
If so, how will Tiger best deal with the worst-case scenario? He has maybe three options:
a) He can simply admit: “I’ve lost my game. I have the yips.”
b) He can claim: “I’ve lost my desire.”
c) He can cite the back injury thing: “My body won’t allow me to practise like I need to. So I can’t play any more.”
I’m going with c).