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Crisis of technique forces Tiger down road to reinvention


Peter Thomson: 'It was obvious that Tiger's tactic was to hit the ball harder than ever'

Peter Thomson: 'It was obvious that Tiger's tactic was to hit the ball harder than ever'

Peter Thomson: 'It was obvious that Tiger's tactic was to hit the ball harder than ever'

Tiger Woods accepted the accolades of captive audiences in India last week while knowing, deep down, that he no longer has the game to cope with gifted rivals like Rory McIlroy. And the challenge for the world No 1 is to find a new way of regaining dominance.

The view among the game's cognoscenti is that Woods was cut to the quick by two events over the last five months. First, came the opening round of the Tour Championship last September at East Lake, where he carded a 73 to Henrik Stenson's blistering 64. More recently, he was forced to observe McIlroy's 63 on the opening day in Dubai.

In those circumstances, and to paraphrase the words of the great Bobby Jones when commenting on a youthful Jack Nicklaus, Woods was looking at games with which he was no longer familiar. Which must have prompted feelings of inadequacy.

Meanwhile, Golf Course Architecture has been noting Asia as a scene of the game's most dramatic growth in recent years. For India, this is richly ironic, given golfing roots dating further back than anywhere in the world outside of these islands. Its first club, Royal Calcutta, was formed by Scottish members of the British colonial service back in 1829 and like cricket, another imperial import, golf went on to claim a significant role in Indian life.

Woods was in Delhi as a guest of Pawan Munjal, CEO of the $5 billion Hero Group of companies. So, one imagines them having no problem in making sense of the $2.5m fee, as was the case with Nicklaus in similar circumstances in Japan almost 50 years ago.

Before regular jet travel, it took almost 24 hours to get from Sydney to Japan, stopping off in Darwen, Manila and Hong Kong. As the Bear's manager Mark McCormack recalled: "It was a time when Nicklaus was offered $10,000 by an American railroad company to go to Japan and play one round of golf." He went on: "Jack and I thought it was fantastic – a heck of a lot of money in those days [first prize in the US Masters was $20,000]. The round would be with the chairman of the Fuji Iron and Steel company, who happened to be a golf nut and a huge Nicklaus fan.

"It seems that Fuji bought coal for their steel mills from West Virginia and the railroad company wanted to win the transport contract which was then with another company. And they decided the way to do it would be through golf. Anyway, Jack and I went over there and we felt very smug about our fee.

"About two years later, I met the vice-president of the railroad company who enquired: 'Did I ever tell you what that golf game was worth to us?' 'No, you didn't.' 'Well, we figured it meant $17m in rail shipments.' Once again I learned the hard way," McCormack concluded with a wry smile.

There have been several fascinating phases to Woods' career, going back to a sensational 1997 US Masters victory by 12 strokes, on what were then the wide-open spaces of Augusta National. An athletic swing involving considerable physical violence led Nick Faldo to remark on the player's "serious shoulder speed".

Then came a relatively fallow period until the remarkable dominance of 1999 to 2002 when his driver with a 43-inch steel shaft delivered seven Majors while everyone around him was using graphite. Looking back, it seems extraordinary that when rivals began to outdrive him, he responded by sacrificing accuracy for distance and switched in 2004 to a 45-inch graphite shaft with a large 460cc head. His game from tee to green would never be the same again.

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By way of explanation, he pointed to his early years when he was one of the tour's longest hitters, besides John Daly, and could carry the ball maybe 300 yards off the tee. "Now there must be 20 guys that can carry it over 300 yards," he argued. "So it's changed quite a bit. Our scoring has become better because we're closer to the greens, so it's kind of a trade-off."

Having observed him at odds with his game around that time, the great Peter Thomson remarked: "It was obvious that Tiger's tactic was to hit the ball harder than ever, if that were possible. It didn't make for a pretty sight and was certainly not the technique of a champion. Quite simply, he was at sea."

Thomson then suggested: "The only way Tiger will learn is by going back to basics. He's not a rhythmic swinger. He's what the Americans call a slugger. In other words, he gives it everything he's got. For instance, when he tees off with that two-iron, he hits it as hard as he possibly can. This seems totally absurd, given that he has two clubs in his bag, the driver and three-wood, which would send it just as far with three-quarters the effort."

There was the further observation that Woods was a "direction", rather than a distance putter. "His concentration is totally on hitting putts on line in the belief that direction alone will get them into the hole," Thomson explained.

"But when direction putters miss, they always miss on the top side of the hole whereas distance putters miss on the low side. Perfect putting demands an awareness of both line and length."

All the while, we had the changing of coaches from Butch Harmon to Hank Haney and most recently to Sean Foley, with the grandiose objective of achieving a technique which might become the most talked of in golf. That would be part of the Woods legacy.

With a modified swing under the tutelage of Haney, the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons were highly productive. Then came his left-knee surgery in June 2008, followed by the hugely self-destructive events of November 2009. On recent evidence, the Foley method is not working.

And given the player's considerable ego, it must be difficult for him to accept that there are now at least 10 rivals, including McIlroy, who can hit the ball consistently longer and straighter than he does.

So, what is he to do? At 38, does he start another remodelling regime in the hope of somehow finding the elusive 20 yards to match his younger rivals? Or does he look elsewhere?

The likelihood is that he will be forced to ditch his notions of a swing legacy to match that of the great Ben Hogan. And if he does decide to reinvent himself, it will be on the basis of established strengths such as determination, innate guile and competitive steel at specific, select venues.

Against younger, fitter and stronger opponents like McIlroy, he can employ the Nicklaus approach of making better decisions and out-competing them on his own terms. And by having the mental strength to play his own game when those around him are too stressed to do so.

It is predicted that with its mystique and growing infrastructure, India is set fair to become an attractive destination for discerning golfers among businessmen and women the world over. And Woods is viewed as an integral part of that development.

His problem, meanwhile, is to carve out a similarly bright future for his ailing game.

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