While reprioritizing his life to deal with his wife's health issues this past summer, Hank Haney's relationship with Tiger Woods also changed. The swing coach stopped traveling to tournaments on a regular basis to work with the world's best player, as was the case in 2006, an absence that would eventually become a lead topic in pro golf's underground gossip mill.
"Guys who get fired don't get paid, do they?" Haney told Golf World this week. "And guys who get fired don't talk to [the person who supposedly fired them] on the phone all the time, either. People want to jump to conclusions on everything."
August's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational marks the last PGA Tour event at which Haney provided Woods with on-site consultation. Tiger won that tournament and three others in his final five '07 starts, another dominating homestretch in another mind-boggling season, which should only make speculation about Haney's job status seem all the more ludicrous.
Still, it exists. Perhaps the most overt example occurred on an analysis of Tiger's swing during the FedEx Cup playoffs, when NBC's Johnny Miller suggested that Woods had refined his technique to become a hybrid of the theories applied by Haney and his former coach, Butch Harmon. It was an insinuation no less cryptic than the viewer chose to make it.
Since joining the Woods camp in March 2004, Haney has faced a consistent undercurrent of skepticism regarding both his teaching principles and his role in helping one of the greatest golfers ever get better. A lot of it can be traced to the Butch Factor. The ultra-glib Harmon received immense credit for molding Tiger into a dominant player during their nine years together (1993-2002), and when Woods failed to achieve the same results after letting Harmon go, many wondered aloud why that partnership ended.
Woods' worst season as a pro was 2004, merely fueling the notion that he'd made a mistake in entrusting his swing to Haney. Five major titles and 21 tour victories later, we've come full-circle, so to speak, although any measure of practical thinking should lead one to believe Hank is just as valuable to Tiger giving part-time counsel as he was in the hands-on mode.
After their meeting at the Bridgestone, Woods' average margin of victory in the four wins was a whopping 3.75 strokes. He finished second in the tournament he didn't win, and though he skipped the first playoff event in what now looks like a veiled attempt to level the playing field, Tiger's late-summer brilliance turned all the drama expected of the tour's inaugural postseason into a puddle of anticlimax. Fired? Haney should get a raise.
"Part of my [philosophy] has always been to help someone become more independent, to become their own teacher," he says. "Do you think these great players just stand there and say, 'OK, tell me what to do?' It doesn't work that way. They figure it out themselves, and Tiger has gotten really good at fixing himself. I'll give him whatever he needs, but I don't think it's a whole lot."
Haney's point about self-repair is conveniently ignored by those who think Harmon took a kid playing off a 10 handicap and led him to his first nine major championships. The role of a swing coach has become remarkably overrated in recent years. There are instances when a new set of eyes or an alteration of mechanics has a dramatic and immediate impact -- Harmon's impact on Phil Mickelson this year is the most obvious example - but a vast majority of coaching at the game's highest level is limited to observation and suggestion.
Nobody's reinventing the wheel out here. A lot of Haney's work with Woods in '06 focused on Tiger's pre-round practice routine -- he would hit a variety of different shots on the range, find the shape and trajectory he felt most comfortable with, then rely on that shot on the course. By the end of last season, Woods had perfected Haney's method to the point where he won six consecutive tour events. Questions regarding the relationship could not be taken seriously.
When the condition of Haney's wife worsened this summer, Woods'
coach faced a decision that was tough to make but easy to rationalize. He was already scaling back on tournament visits, but now, somebody needed him a lot more than did the world's best golfer. Having spent more than 200 days on the road in '06, not only working with Woods but on ESPN's golf telecasts and at a substantial number of teaching clinics, Haney quickly accepted the transition that had elbowed its way into his busy schedule.
He hasn't been fired, and he's not on hiatus. He speaks to Woods over the telephone when the situation calls for it, which isn't all that often because he did his job so well. "People think that because he's hitting the ball better, he must be doing something different," Haney says. "The real breakthrough was [in June] at Oakmont, a tight, U.S. Open golf course, where he drove the ball really well.
"He has gotten to the point where he really is a lot better, and now he's showing everybody what me and a few others have been seeing [in practice] for quite a while. I don't see myself spending as much time out there as I used to. I can't do it and I'm not going to do it, but mainly, Tiger doesn't need it anymore."