Woods' swing has a new look

To close observers of the professional game, it's pretty obvious that the quality of Tiger Woods' ball striking has dropped off from the incredible level he attained in 2000. It is talked about constantly on TV and written about often in magazines. The decline has been most evident with his driver and now even some iron shots. The frequency of poor shots has gone up. The reason, as we will show, is that Tiger's golf swing has changed, and not for the better.

If that assessment sounds overly critical of a 28-year-old man who has won eight major championships and 40 PGA Tour events, let me quickly say that both my colleague Carl Welty and I consider Tiger far and away -- and right now -- the best player in golf.

Ball striking is one part of being a tour player, but only one part. The centerpiece of my teaching is "The 25-percent Theory" in which I divide playing golf into four areas. It gives equal weight to ball striking, short game, mental game and life management. Tiger has the greatest overall short game in golf. He is in perfect physical condition. He loves being in a tight struggle. He intimidates every other tour player. He is the greatest closer of all time. Employing a Green Beret-derived mindset, he makes almost zero mental errors, and I believe that when it comes to winning a tournament, the battle is 80 percent mental.

Tiger is also very intelligent and he studies all aspects of golf. Obviously, Tiger did not change his swing so he would hit the ball worse. On the other hand, it's not a given that even a player as astute as Tiger always makes the correct changes. I can also say with certainty that in 30 years of teaching I've learned that even the best players get off track and get confused about golf. Swings change, sometimes for the better, sometimes with equal results and sometimes for the worse. I also know that after using video in almost every lesson I've done since 1979, top players and instructors can look at one golf swing and see different images. Most of this is to because of the way a person's mind is trained and the prejudices they have regarding the proper way to swing. Impartial analysis is tough to come by. Information is spun in one or another direction.

Rather than spinning, it's our intention to simply, professionally compare Tiger then and now. Let the pictures speak for themselves. No doubt the topic of Tiger's swing issues is made touchy by the always high level of his performance. But our camera doesn't lie. Carl and I have done this sort of analysis for a very long time. Together we have studied tour swings for thousands of hours, examining the all-time greats more than any others with the intent of discovering what makes them excel. We replicate exact angles in our photos and video when comparing swings. If you don't have correct camera angles your pictures have absolutely no research value. I can say the TV analysis and magazine articles that I have read or heard regarding Tiger's swing changes would receive an "F" at any American college. Weak opinions, no supporting evidence and no credit given to sources. Garbage in. Garbage out.

So, what do our photos, taken in 2000 through 2004, show? Without a doubt, Tiger is swinging differently.

In my opinion the major influence came from his close friend Mark O'Meara. Mark has been taught by Hank Haney, although other teachers (including me) have sporadically worked with him. There's no question Mark is a great player with two majors under his belt, and I respect him tremendously. However, tour players invariably give advice based exactly on what they are working on.

O'Meara has a precise way to swing the club up to the top of the backswing, followed by a precise way to swing through to a signature finish. Tiger began to change his swing noticeably in early 2002, often using the same swing drills as O'Meara. Our photos show that Tiger's backswing position in 2003 and 2004 has evolved to an almost carbon copy of O'Meara's. Mark's swing is one that promotes a draw, and indeed it is the shot he plays almost exclusively. On the other hand Tiger, in his early years as a pro and up through 2001, often hit the ball dead straight or even hit a slight fade off the tee. But in the last two years, he has changed to an inside-out, draw-type action. In that time, Tiger has had trouble consistently drawing the driver. He says he does it well in practice, but it has been difficult to control in tournaments. Also, we have noticed him occasionally hitting the golf ball near the heel of his driver, a major reason for his ball tailing to the right, or the reason the ball is not drawing back (see photos).

In my opinion, it's difficult for a power player to draw or hook the driver. Playing a draw increases the possibility of the two-way (left or right) miss. By swinging too much from the inside you must add more hand action to square the club. In return, when the hands don't release, you put the block (right ball) into play or the big hook with too much release, which only requires a minor mistake at Tiger's swing speed.

Almost all of golf's greatest drivers either hit the ball straight or play a fade. I'm talking about Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Hale Irwin, Bruce Lietzke, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Calvin Peete, Nick Price, Colin Montgomerie and Fred Funk.

A tight draw is a great shot but it can deteriorate. When a player begins to swing too far from the inside it causes a loss of confidence and mystery shots. Tiger's downswing and follow through were superior in the photos from 2000 compared to those from 2003/2004. This is by far the most important geometry in this analysis.

In the photos from 2000, Tiger was more athletic swinging the club and kept the clubhead on a more neutral path (a perfect swing arc). His left foot was much more stable and controlled. Today the left foot is often out of control, affecting balance and rhythm.

It is interesting that Byron Nelson recently identified those very swing issues when commenting on Tiger. As one of the greatest ever to play and a teacher to Ken Venturi, Miller Barber and Tom Watson, he is a true expert.

In 2004 Tiger is working on a still head, keeping the loft on the club in the takeaway and rotating the left arm. He is accomplishing these goals. In the forward swing he is trying for more width, causing his hands to get farther away from his body as the club swings out past impact. Then the right arm extends and rounds out to the followthrough. Again, I do not necessarily believe these are considered mistakes by Tiger. He has proven that it is a swing that can win tour events and major championships. But it is different than what he used to do, and in my opinion, is not quite as good.

Tiger is getting hammered in the press with questions about his shot patterns and technique. Meanwhile, he steadfastly continues to tell everyone that he is on track. However, at Bay Hill he admitted, "Ninety percent of my shots are really good, it's just that the other 10 percent are off the charts." It is one of the few times he has even acknowledged the loose shots everyone has seen.

Tiger's bad tee shots start a negative chain reaction. According to ShotLink, Tiger is currently tied for 78th on the PGA Tour in the average distance his approach shots finish from the hole, 39 feet, 4 inches (last year wasn't much better: 55th, 38' 5"). Because playing from the rough causes him to miss greens by wider margins, it has become harder for him to get up and down. This year Tiger ranks 155th in scrambling, a category in which he led the tour in 2001 and 2002, and ranked third in 2000.

Tiger Woods once dominated the amateur game and professional tour with dramatically superior driving. He was smoking his driver straighter and longer than anyone he played with, constantly out driving opponents by 20 yards or more.

Currently, he has suffered about a 10-percent drop off in accuracy with the driver compared to 2000 and does not seem to be improving. Also, there is a high percentage of the misses further off line.

Tiger refuses to make anything but positive comments concerning all aspects of his game, including his golf swing and ball striking. Tiger is talented enough to switch to crosshanded golf and still win tour events, but it looks to me that he is perplexed and sometimes confused with the shots that now sometimes travel so far off line. The results of his efforts -- so far -- suggest he is not on track with his swing mechanics.

Jim McLean, a Golf Digest teaching professional, is director of golf at the Doral Resort and Spa in Miami. Carl Welty is a lifetime member of the PGA of America and an instructor at the Jim McLean Golf School at PGA West.

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