The Game Of Risk

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John Todd--Newsport

For a glimpse into the greatness of Tiger Woods, look past his runaway victory in the British Open at St. Andrews last month. Forget his triumph--also by a record margin--in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June. And set aside his prospects for stomping the field in another major tournament, next week's PGA Championship at Valhalla. Consider, instead, what Woods did right after he dominated the 1997 Masters. He studied videotapes of his performance: blasting 300-yd. drives, hitting crisp iron shots right at the pins, draining putts from everywhere. And he thought, as he later told friends, My swing really sucks.

Now let's put that in perspective. Woods had joined the pro tour only seven months earlier, at age 20, and captivated the game and its fans as no rookie ever had. He had won four of the 15 PGA Tour tournaments he entered, earning $1.8 million in prize money and some $60 million in endorsement contracts from the likes of Nike and Titleist. At the Masters, against the best golfers in the world, he had virtually lapped the field, winning by a record 12 strokes. He was being hailed as the next Jack Nicklaus, who is considered the greatest golfer of all time.

And now, incredibly, Woods was going to risk it all by overhauling the swing that had brought him to this summit. He told his coach he wanted to make serious changes in the way he struck the ball. The history of such efforts is not auspicious. Some fine golfers--Ian Baker-Finch, Seve Ballesteros, Chip Beck--have revamped their swing and never returned to their earlier glory. What was Woods thinking?

"I knew I wasn't in the greatest positions in my swing at the Masters," Woods said during an exclusive interview last week. "But my timing was great, so I got away with it. And I made almost every putt. You can have a wonderful week like that even when your swing isn't sound. But can you still contend in tournaments with that swing when your timing isn't as good? Will it hold up over a long period of time? The answer to those questions, with the swing I had, was no. And I wanted to change that."

In other words, Woods, already considered the best by many of his peers, was gambling that he could get dramatically better--and was willing to do whatever he thought might help him someday surpass his idol Nicklaus as the greatest ever.

Any accounting of the traits and experiences that have shaped Tiger Woods must start with his physical gifts, his exceptional parents and his early start in golf under a series of devoted coaches. He has become, over time, eerily calm under pressure and an obsessive student of the game who reviews videotapes of old tournaments for clues about how to play each hole. He works hard at building his strength and honing his shots. But what is most remarkable about Woods is his restless drive for what the Japanese call kaizen, or continuous improvement. Toyota engineers will push a perfectly good assembly line until it breaks down. Then they'll find and fix the flaw and push the system again. That's kaizen. That's Tiger. It's also Tiger's buddy Michael Jordan, who worked as hard on defense as offense and in his later years added a deadly fallaway jumper to his arsenal. No matter how good they say you are, Michael tells Tiger, "always keep working on your game."

When Woods phoned his coach, Butch Harmon, after the 1997 Masters and told him he wanted to rebuild his swing, Harmon was confident his star pupil could pull it off. But he cautioned that results wouldn't come overnight--that Woods would have to pump more iron to get stronger, especially in his forearms; that it would take months to groove the new swing; that his tournament performance would get worse before it got better. Both men were aware of how such an apparent slump would be depicted by some golf commentators and fellow pros jealous of Woods' early success and fame. The Masters was a fluke, they would say; Woods was a flash in the pan. But Woods didn't hesitate. He and Harmon went to work in a kaizen sequence of 1) pounding hundreds of practice balls, 2) reviewing tapes of the swing, and 3) repeating both the above.

The changes were intended mainly to tame Tiger, who had arrived on the tour swinging full bore on most shots. He would violently rotate his hips and shoulders on his downswing, which produced prodigious tee shots. But sometimes his arms couldn't keep up with the rest of his body, and he'd yank the ball into the rough. Harmon had Woods restrict his hip turn and slow the rotation of his torso on the downswing. He weakened his grip slightly, turning the back of his left hand more square to the target. And as he gained more strength in his forearms, Woods held the clubface square to the target line--with his left wrist slightly bowed--for a crucial split second longer through impact. That produced more consistently straight shots than the old swing, in which Woods rolled his wrists earlier.

The new swing is so efficient that Woods can hit the ball as far as before--when he needs to. But one goal of the makeover was to help him control the ball better, even when he dialed down the power. That payoff didn't come quickly.

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