Back fusion led Tiger Woods to go without coach: 'I'm relying on feel'

SAN DIEGO -- Some of his finest accomplishments in the game occurred here, as did some of his first memories of PGA Tour golf. It is where Tiger Woods first came to witness a tournament, then with celebrity host Andy Williams' name in the title, the picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean a backdrop.

Woods, of course, has won at Torrey Pines nine times -- seven at the tour event he returns to this week, the Farmers Insurance Open, as well as his last major championship 10 years ago, the U.S. Open.

He also captured the World Junior Amateur at Torrey when he was 15, with his dad Earl by his side -- as he often was when Woods was emerging as a prodigy.

Woods' father was ostensibly the golfer's first coach, and while it might seem odd that a player of Tiger's caliber would need that kind of guidance throughout such a storied career, he has rarely been without counsel. Until now.

Last month, Woods announced he was no longer working with instructor Chris Como, who had been in his employ since 2014. Although the Texas-based instructor was rarely seen with Woods at the few tournaments he played in the past two years -- he was referred to as a "consultant'' -- it says something about Woods' plight that he felt the need to announce it.

"The only big deal about it is that no one really understands what it's like to have a fused back and be able to play,'' said Woods, referring to the April back surgery, his fourth, that fused the vertebrae in his lower back. "It's not about how the swing actually looks like. You can get into positions and things of that nature, and there are a lot of things I can't do anymore because of the nature of the fusion.

"So I'm relying on feel and my past performances.''

Woods, now 42 and beginning his 21st season on the PGA Tour, had his first instructor at age 4. Rudy Duran, who still works at three different facilities in Southern California, taught Woods for six years. Then, when Woods was 10, it was John Anselmo, who was in his 60s at the time and after one session famously said, "I have this new kid named Tiger Woods. He's a Tour player in a little boy's body. He just needs to grow into it.''

Anselmo, who died last year, proved prophetic.

As Woods became one of the nation's top junior and amateur players, Earl Woods sought the best instruction and hooked him up with Butch Harmon in 1993. At the time, Harmon was working with the likes of Greg Norman and many top players. Woods was just 17.

Under Harmon, Woods enjoyed some of his greatest success: eight major championships in 24 starts with 34 PGA Tour wins.

Woods and Harmon parted ways -- somewhat controversially -- around the time of the 2002 PGA Championship for myriad reasons. Among those often cited is that Woods' swing under Harmon put too much stress on his left knee.

Although Woods was not officially working with anyone in 2003, it was becoming apparent that he was leaning toward Hank Haney, who had long worked with Woods' friend Mark O'Meara. Their relationship became official in 2004 and was also a successful pairing: six majors in 23 starts and 31 PGA Tour wins.

They stayed together through the Players Championship in 2010, when Haney ended the relationship in the midst of Woods' personal woes and game issues. Later that summer, Woods hired Sean Foley -- whom he had seen do good things with the likes of Hunter Mahan, Sean O'Hair and Justin Rose -- but went through a two-year stretch without winning.

Under Foley, Woods won no majors in 13 starts, but he captured nine worldwide tournaments and went back to No. 1 in the world before his first back surgery in 2014 derailed him. He hired Como as a "consultant" later that year, but their time was short, as Woods played in just 11 events in 2015, one in 2016 and three last year.

"At this point, Tiger has probably forgotten more than most people will ever know about the game of golf," Foley said. "I think it's a wise move. I think he knows what he can do and what he can't do. Chris [Como] did a very good job of helping him understand what he needs to understand. Now he's going to go at it on his own with the ability that he can bounce ideas off the people that he wants to."

Golf instructors dot the driving range every week on the PGA Tour. The likes of Harmon, Foley, Haney, David Leadbetter, Jim McLean and numerous others have become famous teaching the stars and parlaying that into lucrative teaching careers to the masses.

And while not everyone has an instructor with them every week, it is standard fare for a player to consult with his coach either in person or via video. During off weeks, they might take time to visit the coach or vice versa.

Great players throughout history had coaches. Bobby Jones learned the game from Stewart Maiden. Although Ben Hogan never had a coach, he often ran things past Henry Picard. Jack Nicklaus had Jack Grout. Tom Watson had Stan Thirsk.

"Ben once told me he couldn't imagine having a swing coach,'' said writer Dan Jenkins, who was close to Hogan. "He trusted very few people for anything, and you had to earn it. People did offer him tips on occasion. Henry Picard, for one. But it was a friendship deal.

"Ben even scoffed at Nicklaus carrying a cheat-sheet scorecard [yardage book]. Hogan said, 'I don't want to know if it's 163 yards to the pin -- I may want to hit a 2-iron.' Grout helping Nicklaus early on became the first 'coach' any of us heard of. But he rarely went with Jack on the road."

Nicklaus has often said he would see Grout once or twice a year for fine-tuning. He famously did offseason short-game work with Phil Rodgers in 1979 after failing to win a tournament all year for the first time in his career. The following year, Nicklaus won two major championships at age 40.

It was probably the Leadbetter relationship with Nick Faldo that spawned the era of coaches working with players so prominently at tournaments. Under Leadbetter, Faldo completely overhauled his swing in the mid-1980s and went on to win six major championships and become No. 1 in the world.

For 12 years of their 13-year run, Leadbetter never missed a major championship.

"People saw this as what we have to do now,'' said Leadbetter, who has his own teaching academy and still works with several tour pros. "I honestly do feel that some players are overcoached. I'm from the old school. I don't like to be out there every week. Let them work it out themselves, rather than being out there and saying, 'Let's do this, let's do that.' Once they're put back on track, you don't need to do a whole hell of a lot with a player."

And that is why Leadbetter feels Woods will be just fine without an instructor tagging along at every tournament.

"Tiger's gone through maybe four or five swing changes,'' Leadbetter said. "What he's done is taken it all on board. And I think for the most part he wants to take ownership of it. In coaching, you have to allow the player to feel it's all coming from them and not just the coach. It's important that they own the swing. Tiger is a very smart guy. He's looked at umpteen videos and seen what he did in time.

"You hear, 'Why doesn't he go back to what he did at 21?' Well, he's not 21 anymore. He's probably thrown that out the window. I think he's at a stage now where he wants to take responsibility for his own game. What can a coach add?

"In reality then, why does he need the coach? It's almost like a crutch. I think Tiger is his own man. He'll do it the way he wants to do it. He's very self-determined in what he wants to do.''

There is no perfect way to do this. Over the past two years, since leaving Harmon himself, Phil Mickelson has had instructor Andrew Getson at a majority of tournaments. They work together, talking about the swing and looking at video.

Then there is Bubba Watson, who has never taken a formal lesson and swears he never will.

"It's just not my way,'' he said. "It's just not the way I go about it. All of us are good at golf. Sometimes I think some of the great players, they get too wrapped up in the mental part ... when you start talking about other people trying to help you with your swing, look at this, look at that. I think they take a step back.''

Others, such as veteran Stewart Cink, see it differently. He came up around the same time as Woods. Cink was a junior star and started seeing an instructor early on. He worked with Harmon for seven years, including the time he won The Open in 2009. For him, it's a matter of getting feedback he feels is vital.

"Tiger's pretty smart and he's learned a lot about golf and especially his golf,'' Cink said. "I think it's pretty helpful to have an extra set of eyes. Most of us do, but a few of us don't. I think with him, he's maybe trying to clear the mechanism a little bit. He's got so much physically going on, and so much emotionally has shaped him in the last 10 years, maybe he wants to use golf as a way to be simple.''

And so after six coaches, roughly five swing changes and four back surgeries, Woods will go at it alone at a place that stretches far back in his memory. It seems about right.