2004: PGA Tour - The great divide
These days, Butch Harmon rarely talks with his former prized student, Tiger Woods. But if Woods did call seeking help for his inconsistent swing, Harmon would be ready with some simple advice.
“If it was me, I’d break out films of 2000,” Harmon said. “It’s pretty good.”
Woods and Harmon were inseparable then, on top of the golf world together. On Harmon’s watch for almost a decade, Woods would win three U.S. Amateurs and eight professional majors. But by the 2002 PGA Championship, they were done as regular sidekicks. Harmon was pushed away apparently in part because of personality differences, and reunification appears highly improbable at best.
“I have no desire to go back to the same situation where I spend all my time at tournaments with Tiger Woods,” Harmon told Golfweek. “If he wants to come here (Las Vegas), that’s fine. I sat in that hot seat for 10 years, and now someone else can sit in it.”
Harmon says their last “quality” work together was at at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. Woods left there with his seventh title in 11 majors and appearing almost invincible. Because Woods has since gone 0-for-7 in majors and has struggled driving the ball for months while tweaking his swing, the split of the ultra-successful tandem increasingly has raised the public’s curiosity.
Woods is engaged to striking blonde Elin Nordegren, but approaching the June 17-20 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills there’s more talk about his divorce from his old golf instructor than his impending marriage to a young Swedish model.
So, then, what happened?
“I’m not sure anything happened,” said Harmon, to whom Woods paid $50,000 per year and gave one year-end bonus, in 1999, for less than the salary amount. “Tiger decided on doing this his way and doing it alone. I think he felt he got to a point in his life where he didn’t need the help of an individual. Who’s to say he’s wrong?”
Woods has grown increasingly testy when the subject of his relationship with Harmon comes up. At the Masters, he made it emphatically clear that questions about the split will not be answered. Harmon, however, is more forthcoming.
Harmon said Woods called him two weeks before the 2002 PGA at Hazeltine and said that he appreciated all his help but wanted to work on his own. That came soon after Woods got a bad weather break at the British Open at Muirfield and failed to win the third leg of the Grand Slam. “He said if he needed me, could he call and ask for help, and I said, ‘No problem,’ ” Harmon said.
Woods called him twice at night during that PGA to talk about the swing, Harmon said. Woods also visited him in early 2003 in Las Vegas “to bounce a few things off me” a few weeks after knee surgery.
Though they were apart in 2003, Harmon said Woods made the divide official at the end of last year, telling Harmon: “You and I have been friends a long time, but I have a desire to go on alone without a coach.” Harmon said he responded, “I thought that was already the case.”
Though the two strong-willed protagonists publicly cite Woods’ desire for independence and self-sufficiency as the reason for the breakup, insiders in both camps say there’s more to it.
A common notion is that a clash of personal styles eroded the friendship over time. Harmon, 60, is an extrovert who enjoys holding court. Woods, 28, is an introvert who relishes privacy and who has created an aura of secrecy in his camp. It has been said that Harmon was too social for Woods’ tastes in the work environment of the range and practice rounds, or in the vicinity of a microphone.
“That’s been said to me by other people,” Harmon said. “But I am who I am. I like people, and I know a lot of people in golf. I like that side of me. If that was a downfall in that camp, which it might have been, so be it. I’m going to be who I am.”
If such gregarious behavior bothered Woods, he “never once mentioned it,” Harmon said, adding, “He’s not one for confrontation.” Woods, indeed, has fired others perceived to have become too high-profile, such as former caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan, without much warning or explanation.
In Harmon’s case, the “last straw” apparently came two summers ago at the British Open, where Woods arrived having won the year’s first two majors. Harmon was becoming too much the “center of attention,” a Woods friend said. Harmon felt a less friendly energy from Woods at Muirfield and “knew the end was near,” a Harmon confidant said. Interestingly, though the stakes were high, Harmon said he didn’t work much with Woods at Muirfield.
Their estrangement has transcended golf. Parade magazine weighed in May 23, saying Woods had tired of Harmon taking too much credit for Woods’ success. In the interview for this story, Harmon said, “I’m proud of having something to do with (Woods’ record), whatever small amount it was.”
Harmon’s growing involvement with other touring professionals (he works with 19 players) was cited by Parade as a reason, too. But the eldest son of 1948 Masters champion Claude Harmon says Woods “never balked at me working with other people. He was never deprived of my time. I would ask him if he minded
if I worked with someone, out of respect. There was always a pecking order. It was all about him. It was all about him.”
Harmon also discounted any suggestion that his growing portfolio of endorsements, now more than 10, might have become an impediment. “He has more endorsements than anyone ever,” he said of Woods. “We all have the right to earn a living. That’s ridiculous.”
Woods has said repeatedly that he and Harmon remain friends but he will not seek his ex-coach’s swing advice. John Cook, among others, reinforced that Woods won’t get back together with Harmon.
“It’s not going to happen,” Cook said. He cited “maybe a little personality conflict. They probably got a little tired of each other.”
Harmon said he and Woods tease each other every time their paths cross. “We just don’t have a working relationship,” Harmon said. “Are we good friends? No. We don’t talk on the telephone. Are we friends? Yes.”
An argument can be made that Harmon now is one of the few people in golf who doesn’t need Woods. He went out on top with Woods and has validated himself further by helping players such as Darren Clarke, Adam Scott, Fred Couples, Stewart Cink, Steve Flesch and Ben Crane – all of whom posted PGA Tour victories in the last 15 months. It has been said that Harmon has gotten better publicity since not working with Woods than he did with him.
“There’s a little truth in that,” Harmon said.
An argument could be made, too, that Harmon is one of the few people in golf Woods needs.
Woods may be tired of questions about Harmon and the swing, but he hasn’t won in his last 10 starts at PGA Tour stroke-play tournaments, his longest such drought since his swing-reconstruction days of the late 1990s. He hit only 42 percent of fairways in two May events, but he has so muchtalent and heart that he finished one stroke out of a playoff in each. In that sense, if he’s in a slump, it’s one terrific slump.
“To me, the most glaring thing now is that Tiger doesn’t contend in the majors,” Harmon said. “That’s a shocking thing now. We got so accustomed to him winning them.” But he added, “If he sorts out his driving before Shinnecock, I think he’ll win the tournament.”
The worst driving problems of Woods’ career have led to his hitting fewer greens in regulation and scoring higher in 2004 than in any of his seven full seasons. He has found the fairway only 56.4 percent of the time, down from 62.7 last year, his previous worst. The inaccuracy comes at an inopportune time, shortly before the U.S. Open. No tournament demands more precision off the tee.
“Should he call Butch?” asked Mark O’Meara, the 23-year PGA Tour veteran who has been Woods’ close friend and confidant since he turned professional in 1996. “I don’t know. Maybe he should.”
Woods’ drives have found the right rough 19.8 percent of the time, the left rough 16.2 percent. He has birdied a third of his holes from the fairway but is .03 under par from the rough.
“He’s out of sync,” three-time major champion Nick Price said. “The ‘truth’ club is the driver, and he’s hitting drives all over the place. If he gets his driver back in shape, he’ll start winning again.”
What’s a rich and famous man to do about wayward shots that recently produced six penalty strokes in 16 rounds? Woods repeatedly has pronounced himself “close” to top form while working on his own, looking at videotape and hooking up in recent months with Hank Haney, O’Meara’s longtime coach.
“I kind of know what I’m doing, either through videotape and ball flight,” Woods said early this year. “Ball flight tells you everything. Over the years, from working on my golf swing, you start to learn what causes what. For me, a lot of it starts right in the setup.”
Haney worked with Woods before The Players Championship, Masters and Wachovia Championship, and a few days during EDS Byron Nelson Championship week. But Woods labels Haney his “friend,” someone he “bounces things off,” not his new teacher.
“I’m not saying that I teach Tiger Woods,” Haney told the Dallas Morning News at the Nelson. “People can speculate all they want, but Tiger Woods has never said that. We’re old friends. He respects my views on the game, just as he respects other people’s views.”
Close or not, Woods’ swing and the results it produces are far different from his unprecedented 2000 success. Woods has fallen victim to that standard, and Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson are among those who have closed the gap. Others’ rise in confidence has coincided with Woods’ admitted loss of same. Els says top players step on the first tee thinking they can win with Woods in the field.
“I think he knows deep down he hasn’t played the best in the world,” Harmon said. He listed Singh and Els above Woods “until he steps up to the plate and plays like Tiger Woods. The way he’s playing, he’s not (No. 1).”
Woods, though, has made it a habit of answering challenges throughout his career. Doubting him has repeatedly been proven an ill-advised act.
“We definitely see what’s going on,” two-time PGA Tour winner Jerry Kelly said of Woods’ slippage. “We also know at the drop of a hat he can go on a streak. Let sleeping Tigers lie, not that he’s sleeping or anything.”
For his part, Haney says simply, “I’ll bet he’ll figure it out.”
So Woods is back in the laboratory. For years he has fought getting the club stuck behind his body, under the plane on the downswing. A move from that position, if not timed properly with the hands, can lead to a flip hook or a block. Hip speed as fast as Woods’ can magnify the problem.
O’Meara says Woods’ problem is an “under-the-plane” backswing that creates a narrower arc than desired. The result is a flatter, in-to-out swing, Harmon said.
“He radically has changed the path of his backswing,” Harmon said. “It’s more out and around. The plane of the swing is flatter and he’s coming more a little underneath on the downswing, too. He’s put the shaft and his hands more behind him on the downswing. That’s why he’s fought the driver so much. It’s affected his driving more than anything else because it’s the longest club and it creates the biggest arc.
“He always had the ability to hit a little fade and get it in the fairway before. And you never see him hit the (low) stinger (with a 2-iron or 3-wood) anymore. The position he’s coming from, it’s hard to do it.”
Harmon and Jim McLean are among the teachers who say they see an O’Meara influence in Woods’ swing. O’Meara says they help each other while often practicing together, but the Harmon-McLean analysis puts him on the defensive.
“I wish I swung like Tiger Woods,” O’Meara said. “I wasn’t getting credit when he was winning all those majors. If he’s not playing well, everybody thinks I’m teaching him. It’s not my fault he’s not playing well. Why would I do anything to hurt my friend?”
Exactly what Woods is trying to change mechanically is unclear. Mark O’Meara says his friend is "not far off" from resolving some swing plane issues. John Cook, who like O’Meara is an Isleworth Country Club neighbor of Woods and frequently plays casual rounds with him, says Woods is trying to regain width and restore his swing to where it was in 2000. Woods has said he’s not trying to restore; instead he’s trying to create a swing that is better than it was four years ago. Maintaining a wide arc is vital to that goal, he said.
“The blocking is because (the downswing) is narrow,” Woods said . “I react by speeding up the hips and I try to get the club on top of the ball. That’s where I get narrow and stuck and hit it way to the right. I can also hit a couple of flip hooks in there, too, when I get stuck. The key is to stay wide all the time on the way down, but you have to put yourself up in that position on the way back. You just have to be patient. I am building and things are starting to come together.”
The summer’s three major championships will reveal Woods’ progress. In the meantime, O’Meara issues a warning.
“He’s not far off,” O’Meara said. “We all expect the unexpected from the kid. Trust me, the guy is phenomenal. Even if he’s not playing well, he’s phenomenal. Everybody just needs to take a chill pill. He’ll be just fine.”