Tiger Woods hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in more than 4½ years and he hasn’t won the Masters Tournament since 2005, when he was still in his 20s. Now 42, he’s making his umpteenth comeback with a new swing built to protect the fused vertebra in his lower back.
It’s crazy to think he could win at Augusta National. Then again, maybe it isn’t. Oddsmakers give him the third-best chance to win his fifth green jacket, behind only Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy.
Woods is coming off close calls in his two most recent starts and many observers say he looks a lot like the Tiger of old. But what, exactly, does that mean?
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked four Wisconsin PGA Section teaching professionals to break down Woods’ swing and game. None has worked with Woods, but all have closely followed his career and have studied his swing and observed the changes he has made in it, big and small, over the years.
The four instructors are David Roesch, a three-time WPGA teacher of the year and former Web.com Tour player; Kevin Kihslinger, who teaches at GolfTec in Wauwatosa and was the 2014 WPGA teacher of the year; Craig Czerniejewski, starting his fifth year as the head professional at Washington County Golf Course and one of the state’s better players; and Dick Wallace, a longtime PGA professional and expert Ping club-fitter.
We asked them what they liked about Woods’ swing, what they thought might be problematic and what they’d tell him if they could work with him for one hour:
What they like about the new Tiger?
Kihslinger: “I think the first thing is, obviously, he’s pain-free. When there’s pain in your golf swing it’s hard to let go and swing freely. I think he’s confident he can swing without pain and without injuring himself. For a while there he got too far inside-out and was swinging too right-ward. Those were the years he had big pushes (to the right) and over-hooks (to the left). He’s done a good job of getting less inside-out. He’s swinging straighter at the target. He’s finally back to finishing around his left shoulder on the follow-through, which is where he played his best golf.”
Roesch: “To me, it looks like he has more lower-body rotation in his backswing, which I would assume takes pressure off his back. It looks like he is going at it pretty hard, hence some of the numbers we’re seeing on TrackMan. (Woods’ swing speed with his driver has hit 129 mph, the highest recorded speed on tour this year).”
Czerniejewski: “I think this is the freest he’s swung, the most room he’s ever had to get the club head back in front of him. He’s always fought being ‘stuck’ and at least now it is a free-flowing swing, more of an arm swing. It’s not the (mechanical) golf swing or the perfect golf swing. It doesn’t seem as swing-plane oriented as it was in the past. I think it’s as good if not better than anything he’s had since he first came out.”
What might be problematic?
Wallace: “With Tiger, having freedom in his swing is a double-edged sword. His personality is so dominant, he’s so much in control, that I think it’s harder for him to give up control in the swing. When you give it a lot of freedom you’re giving up the control. I think that’s why he struggles with the driver. He knows it’s always been an Achilles’ heel, so he’s caught between trying to control it and trying to give it the freedom. That’s a conflict. That’s his personality.”
Czerniejewski: “His golf swing has always been about trying to avoid knee problems or back problems. I’m very optimistic about this swing but the only thing I’m concerned about is him trying to maximize the speed. I’m a Tiger fan first and foremost but when you see him swinging at 129 mph that’s not something a guy should be doing with a fused back.”
Roesch: “He is swinging so hard, I don’t know how long he can keep it up. And what happens if it goes bad? Obviously, he’s been cleared by doctors but he’s going at it as hard as I’ve ever seen him in his career. Maybe he’s trying to see what he can and can’t do speed-wise. But I’d try to scale back a little bit and say let’s go 80% or 90% and see if you can put it in the fairway at 310 yards. He’s got to figure out how to get a couple more of those drives in play.”
What they’d tell him in a one-hour lesson:
Kihslinger: “You’d have to ask him what he’s trying to do, what he’s feeling, what he feels like his struggles are. You have a conversation and create a game plan. I think the biggest thing for him is making sure he doesn’t get too inside-out. The reason he hits blocks and hooks, he’s swinging too many degrees to the right of the target. He needs to get the path of his golf club moving at the target.”
Czerniejewski: “If I were to work with him the thing I would work on is getting his swing a little bit wider in the backswing. We would work on width in the backswing and continue to keep the right elbow in front of the right hip coming down. When he does that, it allows the club and shaft to stay in front of him. When his elbow gets too far inside, he either hooks it or blocks it.”
Roesch: “Obviously, he’s a very smart individual when it comes to the swing. He doesn’t need a swing coach. He maybe needs a swing adviser. I would try to figure out what speed do we need to go at to put the ball in the fairway. It’s not always 100 percent.”
Wallace: “I would just tell him to enjoy it. Nobody knows his swing better than he does. He doesn’t need an instructor. I’m glad he’s doing it all on his own. That’s a big, big change from everyone else on tour, except maybe Bubba (Watson). Maybe he’ll start a trend. That wouldn’t be good for golf instructors.”
Will he win again?
Wallace: “I do think he has a chance to win more majors. The only thing that could interrupt it would be another injury. Mentally, he’s stronger than anybody out there. There isn’t anybody that’s going to scare him down the stretch. He might be the closest thing to (Jack) Nicklaus there ever was.”
Kihslinger: “His talent, his skill, his drive … it wouldn’t surprise me if he still beats Nicklaus’ record (of 18 major titles; Woods has 14). If his back holds up and he plays pain-free, I think he can win a lot. He seems happy out there. He seems to have figured out how to enjoy golf and I think that’s a huge part of his comeback. I think everyone is cheering for him again.”
Roesch: “I think he’s going to win. I think he’s going to win the Masters. His short game is so good and he’s so familiar with Augusta. I think he’s got a great chance.”
Czerniejewski: “He can be as dominating as he once was if he’s smart about it. I believe he’ll win again and I think he’ll win dominantly. It’s been so long since Tiger has been relevant that people forget what it was like when he was dominant. For the kids who are coming up now who never got to see Tiger (in his prime), they’re in for a treat.”
2018 Masters Capsule
When: Thursday through next Sunday.
Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
TV: Wednesday – Par 3 Contest, 3 p.m., ESPN. Thursday and Friday – 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN. Saturday – 3-7:30 p.m., CBS. Sunday – 2-7 p.m., CBS.
The field: The Masters Tournament is an invitational. Golfers are invited after having met one or more qualifying criteria; past champions are exempt for life. Typically, fewer than 95 players qualify. There are no Wisconsin players in the field this year.
About Augusta National: The course, designed by Alister MacKenzie on a former nursery, has hosted the Masters since 1934. It has been lengthened several times over the years and now measures 7,435 yards. Par is 72.
Last year: In his 74th major championship, Sergio Garcia finally broke through and won the Masters, beating England’s Justin Rose on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff after they tied in regulation at 9-under-par 279. Garcia became the third Spanish player to don the winner’s green jacket, after Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.