By Jeff Rude, Senior Writer
Questionable decision-making is behind Tiger Woods’ fallen status as a golfer. Poor choices, of course, led to the embarrassing derailment of his personal life last year. Substandard play followed the emotional ordeal.
Then last summer Woods chose not only to change his swing, but to overhaul it. He decided on the reconstruction – a couple of months after he and instructor Hank Haney parted ways – even though Woods won 51 percent of his PGA Tour starts from July 2006 through 2009.
Everyone is entitled to his opinion about how the golf club should be swung. But the facts are that Woods won more than half of his Tour starts for 3 1/2 years leading up to the night he hit that Isleworth fire hydrant.
And then, remarkably, he decided to scrap the swing that made him a 51 percenter.
He hasn’t won since.
I’ve seen some amazing things in sports. This ranks right up there. We won’t know for years, but this could end up being more bizarre than the sex scandal that played out in tabloids around the world.
It’s amazing for a number of reasons. Woods is a smart guy. So why tinker with not only success but domination? Why mess with one of the highest standards in golf history?
What would we think if Albert Pujols dramatically altered his stroke after winning several MVP awards in a row? The kindest among us would say he was ill-advised. The typical observer would say he’s nuts.
Of course, Woods made major swing changes in 1994, ’97 and ’04 and ultimately got better or continued to be by far the world’s best.
He’s banking on the hope that he can do it again. The fact that he was so successful those other times – first under Butch Harmon, then with Haney – probably made it easy for him to change this time. But has he gone back to the laboratory one too many times?
He succeeded with talent and work ethic while so many others have failed while trying to improve. Listen to Rocco Mediate.
“A lot of times when guys try to get better, they get worse,” Mediate said. “When I win a tournament, what I think I need to do is (his voice raises) what I just did. I’m not going to overhaul something; I just beat everybody. Whenever I played my best, they have this thing they invented called DVDs and you go home and watch what you did. I wonder why guys don’t look at that more often.”
Now Woods is 35, in his supposed prime, but looking like he’s on the back nine. On one hand, he’s among the game’s most physically fit. On the other, he’s an old 35. He has been playing under a microscope since age 2, has had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee three times and has dealt with constant competitive stress under scrutiny.
Point is, swing overhauls take time, and time is no longer on Woods’ side. His breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors used to seem like a foregone conclusion. Now it looks questionable. For the first time, I’d bet against.
Woods somehow shot 149 last weekend at Torrey Pines, where he had won his five most recent starts. He let go of the club enough that one prominent professional observed, “He’s leading the league in one-armed swings. He’s making more one-armed swings than Alex Rodriguez.”
Afterward, Woods said he is committed to his new action, that he’s not looking back, that there’s “no reason” he can’t rise to the top again after swing reconstruction. I wish he and new coach Sean Foley, a fine man and successful teacher, well in that pursuit. I hope they succeed, because golf needs Woods and should be indebted to him.
But this isn’t about swing philosophy or technique or personalities or friendships. This is about cold, hard numbers.
Why overhaul after you lead the Tour in greens in regulation in 2006-08? After you win a U.S. Open on a broken leg? After you routinely lead the Tour’s all-around ranking?
Despite all that success, critics in recent years vilified Haney and hollered about Woods’ errant driving. But did you know Woods finished 12th in total driving in 2009, the last season of the Tiger we’ve known? This is the same man who slipped to 167th in GIR and 192nd in total driving as a mess last year.
Yes, one shouldn’t judge solely on one poor season (2010) or one sloppy week (T-44 at the Farmers Insurance Open).
But one can’t help but wonder if Woods isn’t messing up his career. Or wonder about what he’s trying to prove. Or wonder if the swing-makeover decision was made with his foggy mind of 2010, or perhaps out of arrogance.
For years I’ve made it a point never to doubt Woods. Now I wonder.
At the moment, he’s the mechanical man, playing swing instead of golf. And all the swing thoughts seem to have infected his short game, given poor bunker play and chipping at the Farmers.
Once the new motion becomes second nature, he’ll get back to a desired place: Playing golf. I expect he will win many more tournaments and win at least a couple more majors because he’s Tiger Woods and he’s determined. And I hope he does – partly for golf’s sake, partly because I like Foley.
But I’d be shocked if we ever again see those double-digit margins of victory, those Secretariat days. Or those five-plus victory seasons. Or that 30 percent success rate in majors and Tour events. Or a 3 1/2-year stretch winning at 51 percent.
Woods wouldn’t be the first superstar to hit a wall in his mid-30s. Tom Watson and Curtis Strange come to mind.
The question isn’t just whether Woods will catch Nicklaus. It’s also this: Can he come close to emulating Vijay Singh and Sam Snead and win big into his 40s? The only certainty is that whatever unfolds will be fascinating to watch.
Woods says he’s hitting the ball well on the range and playing well at home. But I hear he played poorly at Isleworth before beginning his 2011 season last week, hitting several loose shots in his last tuneup round.
But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the odds used to be with him. Now they seem stacked against.