Keeping Score

Tiger’s Masters: The Swing Is the Thing

Forget about the sex scandal. Why too many swing changes may cost Tiger Woods a shot at sports immortality

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David Cannon / Getty Images

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot during the first round of the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on April 7, 2011

Will Tiger catch Jack? As this year’s Masters teed off on Thursday morning, what was once an easy question — of course Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’ record for most wins at major tournaments, 18 — seems harder than ever to answer.

Since Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open in superhero fashion, playing on a broken leg to beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff, he has failed to win a major. (He currently has 14 titles.) A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) shut down the rest of his 2008 campaign. After Woods came up empty in 2009, and revelations about his numerous extramarital affairs resulted in a tumultuous off-season, he has not won a single tournament. Woods is no longer the world’s top-ranked golfer — he’s now in the seventh place, looking up to Germany’s Martin Kaymer, the world’s No. 1, and five guys he used to regularly crush, like Phil Mickelson and Luke Donald.

(See pictures of Tiger Woods’ best victory moments.)

Many fans and pundits have simply chalked up Woods’ recent struggles on the links to distractions. Once Woods recovers from a scandal that broke up his marriage, cost him millions in sponsorship money and presumably took away his once legendary focus in the most mental of games, why won’t he be the same old Tiger? But a revealing article in the April issue of Golf Digest, in which writer Jaime Diaz speaks to the five men who have served as Woods’ swing coach through the years, casts serious doubt on that assumption.

Woods is now in the middle of his third major swing overhaul as a professional, under the tutelage of a brash, new coach, Sean Foley. And it’s only fair to wonder if Woods’ constant swing tinkering will cost him a shot at sports immortality.

No higher authorities in golf than the King and the Golden Bear are raising the issue. “I just sort of giggle,” Arnold Palmer told Diaz. “I think Tiger has a basically sound swing, and he should stick to it. Always changing, it takes away from something that is really good.” Nicklaus agreed. “When Tiger started out, there was nothing mechanical about him,” Nicklaus told Golf Digest. “Now he plays by mechanics, but I’ve noticed that when he starts making mistakes, he instinctively reverts back to feel. When he really has to win something, the touch and feel that he reverts to produces some unbelievable results. There are no mechanics at all when he’s really under the gun. That’s how he should play all the time.”

(See a brief history of the Tiger Woods scandal.)

Just five years ago, Tiger’s current instructor, Foley, was giving tips to white-collar hackers and juniors near Toronto. But he has helped a few rising stars, like Hunter Mahan, Sean O’Hair, and Justin Rose, find their games. On the golf circuit, Foley’s fast-talking personality has earned him a nickname, Axel, after Eddie Murphy’s character in the Beverly Hills Cop movies. During one interview, he made a promise: “I don’t think there’s any chance he [Woods] will repeat what happened [not winning any tournaments in a single year, 2010],” Foley said. “Not under my watch.” Foley also traded barbs with Woods’ former coach, Hank Haney. “Tiger helped build Hank’s career, not the other way around,” Foley said.

Woods will count on Foley, who started coaching him last August, to resurrect his game. But what if, as Nicklaus and Palmer suggest, Woods has already changed swings one time too many? Twice, Woods altered his technique while at the top of his game, which flies in the face of sports logic.

Woods first overhauled his technique after the 1997 Masters, which he won by a record 12 strokes. Woods felt that victory had more to do with good timing on his shots, which you can have in any given week, than sound mechanics, which you need to sustain long-term success. Essentially, Woods felt he got lucky. So Woods and his first pro coach, Butch Harmon (who now instructs Woods’ longtime rival, Mickelson), worked on slowing down Woods’ torso movement on the downswing, which would presumably lead to less erratic shots.

(Watch TIME’s video “Taking On Tiger Woods at His Own Game.”)

These initial tweaks produced the greatest run in modern golf history. Between the 1999 PGA Championship and the 2002 U.S. Open, Woods won seven out of 11 majors, including four straight in 2000 and 2001, a streak dubbed the “Tiger Slam.” But after his victory in the 2002 U.S. Open, Woods wanted another overhaul, which Harmon, and many fans, didn’t believe he needed. Why mess with unprecedented success? Woods and Harmon parted ways that year.

His next coach, Haney, told Golf Digest this year that when he and Woods first connected in 2003, Woods sought changes that eased the pressure on his left knee, which was already creaky. Haney, however, had told the magazine last year that Woods’ knee didn’t drive the fixes. No matter: the knee faltered anyway, and in the eight years since he left Harmon, Woods has won just six of 32 majors. Sure, that’s an impressive mark, and Woods enjoyed a true resurgence in 2006, when he won two majors and finished the year with six straight PGA-tour victories (he won his seventh straight in 2007). And he was red-hot in 2008, before the ACL surgery. Still, what if Woods had stuck with his Tiger Slam–era swing? Would he have already passed Nicklaus?

So now Woods is rebuilding yet again. Foley is tightening Woods’ grip on the golf club and asking him to keep his arms closer to his body, which should improve his efficiency and keep Woods straighter. But golf swings are a delicate thing. Even for a golf machine like Woods, how many disruptions to muscle memory can one man take before seeds of doubt creep into his brain — and hurt his game for good?

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