Sport

What Now For Tiger?

Sean Foley now has one 2013 major champion in his stable, so what’s stopping his star pupil from adding to that figure?

Justin Rose will be the subject of universal praise and admiration following his historic victory at Merion on Sunday. And rightly so. Golf after all, is a sport where the consequences of success and failure fall solely on the shoulders of the individual concerned. When the first of those two imposters befalls them, they deserve to bask alone in their achievements. However, one would hope that Rose dropped a text message of thanks to his coach Sean Foley, acknowledging the American coaches’ role in his transformation from a wasted talent to a world class player. Given the conscientious nature of Rose’s winning speech one would imagine he is aware of the credit Foley deserves. One would also imagine that Foley’s inbox may also be occupied by a message from the premier player in his stable, Tiger Woods.

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This message will read something along the lines of ‘more work needed’.  The task of calibrating a yard stick for when Woods can be considered ‘back’ has become a futile and tedious one. For Woods, whether people consider him to be ‘back’ is of little importance. All I shall offer regarding this debate is this; Woods will not be satisfied with his rebuilding programme until he has regained some forward momentum in the race towards Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships.  Nevertheless, Foley has done an excellent job with Woods who has made great technical strides under his tutelage.

The task of calibrating a yard stick for when Woods can be considered ‘back’ has become a futile and tedious one.

Some may claim that his swing, mind and putting stroke remain a poor second to the state of those three attributes around the period 2000 to 2001 when Woods held all four major championships at once.  But Sean Foley did not inherit the Tiger Woods of April 2001. He inherited the Woods of August 2010. A player mentally rocked by the much publicised revelations regarding his infidelity. A player unable to practice for the necessary hours, due to knee and Achilles injuries. A player with a swing that contained obvious technical flaws, namely a club the dropped to far behind him and got ‘stuck’ on the downswing. Dropping to 56 in the world rankings in October 2011 could be viewed as the nadir of the period.  However a rise back to World No 1 followed, due to seven PGA Tour wins in around 15 months. A recovery that both Foley, though especially Woods, deserve great praise for and recovery for which the sport is all the better for. So with such positive steps being made, what is stopping Woods from winning major championships once again?

The statistics regarding Wood’s game itself seem to suggest, not a great deal. The fear of the controlling the driver that former coach Hank Haney eluded to in his book The Big Miss seems to have receded. Woods is ranked 9th for Total Driving, a combination of distance and accuracy, on the PGA tour this year. Woods is never going to be a Fred Funk, but his driving accuracy ranking has improved to 61st on tour when compared to a ranking of 139th in 2006, a year in which he won two major championships. As in that very year, Woods is ranked 1st on tour regarding scoring averages. So from tee to green, it seems that Woods game is good in enough to win majors once again.

Moving away from quantitative evidence, the naked eye seems to back this up. He is carrying the ball sensational distances particularly with his irons, due to much better compression of the ball through impact due to the swing changes made under Foley. In fact, adjusting to hitting the ball a greater distance with his approaches meant Wood’s distance control suffered. This goes some way to explaining why Woods dropped to a moderate, by his standards, 32nd on tour in Greens in Regulation last year.

So perhaps the answer lies on the greens. Woods himself seems to think so. Explaining his failure to put himself in contention come Sunday, Wood’s stated “I didn’t make a lot of putts the first couple of days and yesterday. I had three putts the first couple of days. And that’s one shot off the lead.” Sometimes this excuse can be a little predictable, and at times Woods ignores in post round interviews how a flaw elsewhere in his game put his putting under undue pressure.

Following the final round at the Masters in April, Wood’s told the assembled press a similar tale “From the first eight holes I think I left every putt short. I had a hard time getting the speed “.  However, at tournaments other than the majors Wood’s has been back to his imperious best with the putter. Notably, when a putting tip from Steve Stricker inspired a total of 100 putts in four rounds en route to victory at the WGC Cadillac Championship in March.  Woods is ranked 5th on Tour in ‘Total Putting’ this year. Transporting the putting performances that have brought about four wins this year, from regular to major events, appears to be the obstacle facing Woods.

Therefore when such evidence is considered, one has to conclude that the thing stopping Wood’s from advancing his haul of 14 majors is located in the six inches between his ears.  Writing that seems almost ludicrous, given that Woods has possessed one of the most resilient and focused sporting minds of the modern era. However statistics, and the fact he has won more times than anybody in the world over the past 15 months suggests that there isn’t much wrong with his game. What has troubled Woods is replicating such performances at Major championships and in particular the weekends of major championships. Strangely, Woods is ranked 104th in final round scoring average on the tour this year, despite four wins.

At the last five Major championships, Woods has consistently got himself into good positions after two rounds but failed to go on and achieve what he refers to as the ‘W’. Another sound bite of Wood’s is what he calls the ‘process’; the rebuilding program he has embarked on with Sean Foley. If one were to map out this process it would look something like this; practice range to practice rounds, practice rounds to regular tournament rounds, then onto producing in final rounds of regular tournaments, and then producing in major championships and finally producing in the final rounds of major championships.

Evidently Woods is a nearing the final stage of this process. However the hurdle confronting him seems to be a mental one. Regardless of the good work of Sean Foley, this hurdle is one that Woods will have to negotiate alone. I myself would not bet against him finding the solutions.

Dan Zeqiri

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