DCSIMG

John Huggan: Coach ditches Tiger Woods by text

Hank Haney reveals why a lack of loyalty persuaded him to split up with Woods

• Swing change: Under Hank Haney's guidance, Tiger Woods produced the best results and performances of his career, but the relationship was never going to last. Photograph: Getty

EVEN OVER a transatlantic phone line, the emotion in his voice was unmistakable. While the headline "golf coach and player go separate ways" can't ever quite match the seismic impact of, say, Nelson Mandela's release from Robben Island, or John Lennon splitting from the Beatles, for Hank Haney the decision to pull the plug on his six-year professional relationship with Tiger Woods nevertheless came close – and brought with it for the man himself only an overwhelming sense of relief.

For one thing, this decent human being can now rid himself of the increasing stench that comes with proximity to the increasingly wretched Woods. And for another, Haney is now free from the largely uninformed and increasingly hysterical criticism that followed seemingly every time Woods missed a fairway or green by an inch or a mile.

"It was a tough decision, one I went back and forth on many times," said the 54-year old Dallas-based instructor, one day after announcing that he and Woods were finished as teacher and pupil. "I sent him a text. I wished him the best and told him I hope he finds someone else to help him. He first responded, 'thanks.' Then two seconds later he said again, 'we're just taking a break right?' I told him 'no, we're done.' When all is said and done, I'm better off out of it. That's the bottom line. It is a huge weight off my shoulders."

Indeed, it is surprising that Haney lasted as long as he did. It surely did not escape his notice that, despite the great loyalty he displayed towards his most famous charge, that feeling was not reciprocated – not in public anyway. Where Haney unfailingly responded to queries in ways that best served the interests of Woods, on too many occasions to count Woods never once responded in the best interests of Haney.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Even since his latest return to competition at last month's Masters, Woods noticeably failed to stick up for the man who has stood by his side – actually behind him on the range – for nearly 40 tournament victories, including six major championships. Just last week at the Players Championship (where he withdrew after six holes of the final round citing a neck injury), the world's best golfer was asked about the state of his relationship with Haney.

In response there was, as ever, no statement of support for Haney and his swing philosophies. Instead, Woods' typically curt response merely confirmed that the two were "still working together". One day later, his answer to speculation that he was about to fire Haney, was just as disingenuous: "Hank and I talk every day, so nothing has changed."

But even that seemingly simple statement was, in fact, more than debatable. Since the Masters almost a month before, the only contact between the two men had been a pair of short texts. They had not spoken directly and they certainly had not spent time on the practice range. So while the world of golf was privately and publicly slagging off Haney because of Woods' increasingly erratic driving, the reality was that the man getting the blame had had no opportunity to rectify any swing faults. Just one more thing Tiger neglected to mention.

"I wish he had stood up in a press conference and announced, at the very least, that he was sick of all the criticism, that he backed me and that he believed in me," says Haney. "But he never did."

(At this point, in the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that this correspondent has aided Haney in the writing of three instruction books and countless magazine articles. We are friends. So this is hardly an unbiased view).

What makes Woods' apparent reluctance to pay tribute to his supposed friend and coach was that, relative to his competition, his superiority had never been more marked. Despite the reluctance of a media expertly schmoozed by Tiger's former coach, Butch Harmon, to acknowledge the facts, the numbers do not lie.

As Haney says: "My record with him is what it is; it will never be approached. In the past two and a half years Tiger has won 44 per cent of his tournaments. He's been in the top ten 85 per cent of the time. All I can say is, 'good luck'.

"No-one has ever done that in golf. In the time he was with Butch, he won 27 per cent of his events. With me, he won 35 per cent. And with Butch he achieved 63 per cent top tens – with me 71 per cent. So he was better with me. That should be the only gauge that matters."

Ah, but it never was. Apparently blinded by the unforgettable displays turned in by Woods at the US Open and Open a decade ago – where he won by a combined 23 shots – the "chums of Harmon" were forever determined to compare those two peerless performances with the worst of Woods under Haney. But what was lost in that particular shuffle is a simple golfing truism: players who win tournaments by large margins do not do so because of their ball striking.

As Haney points out: "Tiger won by so many in 2000 not because he hit the ball great – which he did – but because he made every putt he looked at. You don't win by 15 by hitting the ball great; you win by that many making lots of putts.

"Plus, my time with Tiger coincided with the poorest putting of his career. (Caddie] Steve Williams (who keeps his own stats on Woods' play] will confirm that. He has not putted as well as he did before. 2000 was nothing more than the greatest putting year in history. He can't repeat that; it was a one-time deal."

Nevertheless, it was the fall in Woods' driving statistics over the last few years that became much of the media's mantra. What was only rarely acknowledged is that – in a vain attempt to combat the increased distances professionals nowadays routinely hit drivers – fairways have narrowed considerably since 2000. Add in increasingly "tight" pin positions closer and closer to the edge of putting surfaces and it is little wonder that almost every leading player has seen a drop in his "fairways-hit" and "greens in regulation" statistics. Woods is far from unique in that respect.

So, what next for the man who, after all, might not be the greatest player to ever lift a club? The suspicion here is that Haney will not be the last high-profile departure from the increasingly beleaguered Woods camp. If the body language of Williams is any guide, the long-time caddie – who has little need of money these days – might be next to go.

Last week at the Players, Williams was even more taciturn than usual, a fact that betrayed a growing frustration with both his boss and the rubbish golf he was playing at Sawgrass. There seemed to be little or no interaction between the pair, even at times when Williams would normally be expected to step up and get in his man's ear.

There are growing rumours too that Mrs Williams (a close friend of the soon-to-be ex-Mrs Woods), disgusted by the salacious behaviour of Woods over the past few months, is keen for her husband to work in a, shall we say, cleaner atmosphere.

As for Woods himself, despite his protestations to the contrary, he shows no signs of positive change. Not even a little bit. The seemingly compulsive lying to the press, for example, continues unabated, even with regard to the most trivial of things.

Asked early in Players week if he had any physical issues, Woods replied that he had "none. Zero. Everything is 100 per cent." Then, in the wake of his subsequent withdrawal, he claimed to have been suffering neck pains "since before the Masters". And we are expected to believe what he says when it comes to important stuff?

Sad to say, this whole sordid saga looks like it is going to get worse before it gets better. Soon enough, all that Woods will be left with are the devious sycophants in his management team. And he's welcome to them.

 
 
 

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