Photo courtesy of www.cbssports.com
The week Comic-Con arrived in San Diego, a friend and follower of my work asked me if I was going to blog about it.
I told him it hadn’t occurred to me.
“Well, it’s travel, right?” he stated, to which I replied, “Yes.”
“And doesn’t golf have a super hero?” he asked, to which I, after a contemplative pause, responded, “We used to.”
The headline hit my email inbox the Friday of the British Open, a day before Tiger Woods would officially miss the cut, but that conclusion was already foregone.
The Golf Digest headline popped up: “Tiger Woods Officially Finished”.
I copied it and popped it into a text to a few golf friends and contacts.
One replied immediately: “No, he isn’t.”
The dissenting voice was my former instructor, and golf swing mentor, at the Golf Academy of America, Michael Flanagan.
He followed with a text briefly backing up his belief. I offered to take up the matter with him in a future blog post. He agreed. And here we are.
One day in school in 2012 that I’ll never forget is the first time we were shown how to use V1, a video analysis program to teach the golf swing.
Among the many things you can do on V1 is take professional swings and break them down through sequencing and slow motion. You can also draw on the screen, which is done primarily to reinforce how well the pros maintain their posture.
The first swing we were shown to demonstrate the system was Tiger in his prime at the Masters. When you study a swing, the first thing you do is draw two lines – one along the spine and a vertical behind their behind. Then you draw a circle around the head. This tells you how well a player holds their form.
The instructor did this with Tiger’s swing … and pushed play.
Tiger tore into the golf ball and the video stopped just past impact. He hadn’t moved a micron within the circle or off his lines.
The instructor turned to the class and asked, “So what was there to fix?”
Being an instructor and a student of the game, Michael Flanagan studies golf swings the way Ron Jaworski studies quarterbacks. He has studied players past and present and can tell you exactly what makes a player’s swing his swing … in great detail. For instance, he can tell you, and show you, the 15 things that define Ernie El’s golf swing.
He’s analyzed swings for decades now – Hogan to Weiskopf to Woods – and is something of a swing Yoda. When he tells you something about a swing, it’s the truth. Whether you chose to believe or not is up to you. When he’s teaching you, his bluntness comes at you like a crowbar, but a bruised ego is a necessary part of the process when you’re trying to find the elusive greatness in your golf swing.
So what does Flanagan see when he looks at Tiger? A fundamentally flawed player who used to be the avatar of swing perfection.
“From a technical standpoint, the biggest issue he has is in his backswing. He lowers his head, which we call bobbing. When he swings, he’s got to pop up to clear. If he could just stay level, he’d be fine.”
And that’s it?
“Yes. He’s just got to stay level in the backswing, no matter what pattern he’s using.”
Wow. He could make that fix in the morning and win a major in the afternoon.
“Then he needs to just get out of his own way and let it happen. I’m telling you, he’s close.”
Unbeknownst to Mike, while he was teaching class, Tiger had reeled off his first four-birdie binge in nearly two years at the Quicken Loans National in Washington, D.C.
When you’re trying to figure out the state of Tiger’s game by listening to him talking, it gets confusing. But it turns out, it isn’t so much about reading between the lines with Tiger as it is speaking Tiger-ese. Not surprisingly, Mike speaks Tiger.
Here’s a Tiger term: Patterns. Explain.
“What he really means is technique. Great athletes, like Tiger, feel they can adapt to any swing technique, which he calls patterns. He’s got his patterns mixed up. And you can’t mix and match. You’ve got to be committed to one belief.”
Then Mike begins to deconstruct Tiger through his coaches and you see what he means. In basics, the philosophies of his four professional coaches are the four swings he’s tried on tour, three of which he’s won with, two of which had him on pace to be the greatest player of all time.
Those swing “patterns” conflict. It’s like speaking English, French, Chinese and Arabic. Trying to speak them all at once would be communication chaos. Even two at would make tongue-tied, or swing-tied in Tiger’s case.
“And I think Sean Foley (Tiger’s third teacher) was really trying to get him to swing around his limitation (his knee),” Flanagan says. “But there are a lot different ways to swing the golf club. The method employed is of no significance as long as it’s repetitive.”
So Tiger is having trouble scrubbing his swing hard drive? His formula for success is just rinse, swing, repeat?
He’s that close?
After a recent round where he spent another day moonwalking the leaderboard instead of charging up it, Tiger mentioned that he needed to check his “spin rate.”
This had the heads of the largely golf ignorant mainstream media spinning.
“His what?!?!?!?” was the outcry.
Those who know the teaching side of the game recognize this as TrackMan talk. TrackMan is the revolutionary swing tracking system that has literally changed the game in the last five years by being able to detect things imperceivable to the human eye, such as face angle at impact. (My favorite TrackMan term is Smash Factor – a number that quantifies centerdness of contact and velocity.)
Tiger is talking about a stat that, among other things, tells you how far your shot is offline. High spin means low fairways hit. Get it?
Which brings us to our next Tiger topic, which is him saying he can’t take his game from the range, where he’s rumored to strike it beautifully, to the course.
Mike has seen this before. It’s the difference between range mentality and game mentality.
“He’s not letting it happen on the course. He’s trying to make it happen. On the course, he’s thinking about mechanics, not his target, which is the course. He’s ball-bound.”
So does Tiger need to play more or practice more to get it back?
“I think you should practice as much as you play and play as much as you practice. But he needs to play more and get back in the heat of the competition. “
Oh, and lose his coach.
“Tiger knows enough now that he doesn’t need a coach. He knows more about the golf swing than most instructors do because he’s won at all levels, no matter what swing technique he’s used.”
Speaking of winning, Tiger now hasn’t won a major since the U.S. Open at Torrey in 2008, where he famously won a playoff with Rocco Mediate while playing on a broken leg.
So the last time Tiger played truly healthy is more than seven years ago. We might just be seeing it again now.
“Health is important to a golfer. You’ve got to be physically strong to play this game. Look how much they walk. They’re on their feet all day playing and practicing.”
If Tiger’s truly health, Mike still trusts the talent.
“How many guys have won on a broken leg?”
In fact, Mike was a believer for the British. In case you didn’t hear, that didn’t go well.
But maybe there’s hope for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in two weeks?
“Most people will think he has no shot. But he’s striking the ball well and just needs to see results. If he gets that driver under control …
“You’ve got to be able to drive it, wedge it and putt it. Tiger has always been able to do those three. But without any one of those three, it makes it difficult to play the game … for any player.”
Mike is keeping the faith Tiger will find his driver. Yes, he’s predicting a comeback.
“He will be back because of his work ethic. He’s dedicated to the game. He stills loves it and stills wants to excel. And he still wants to win majors.”
Tiger’s decline has denied the sports world – not just golf – the greatest sports storyline of our lives – Tiger surpassing Jack’s 18 majors. As we all know, he’s been stuck on 14 since Torrey. Mike doesn’t believe he’ll stay stuck.
“He can still win golf tournaments, including majors.”
What stands against him, even if he returns to his peak, is his age and the field … and time.
“He’s 39, and he’s past his prime. But with is experience, which is worth a lot, he can still get it done. Hey, Jack won at 46. That’s 24 majors away for Tiger.
“He’s still got all the tools in the toolbox. But he’s got to use them all to accomplish it because of all the talent that’s out there on the PGA Tour today. There was nobody close to him when he won the Tiger Slam.”
Now there’s Rory, Rickie, Dustin and, of course, Jordan.
“He inspired those guys and now he’s got to compete against them. But I think he can.
“Golf is the power game, the short game, the putting game, mental game and the course management game. He’s got to use them all.”
And if he does …
“He can win a major and even more than one.”
While Tiger’s victories have gone away, his galleries have not. Mike finds this fascinating … and telling.
“Everybody’s waiting for him to show up. They want to see it one more time because it was so unbelievable when he was doing it.”
So there’s a chance Tiger could be standing on the tee with history on deck at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2021?
“Wouldn’t it be great for the game of golf?”