Tiger's Biggest Gamble

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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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Woods won only one Tour event during the 19 months between July 1997 and February 1999. He often got frustrated and angry--at the thick rough where his shots often landed, at the press, at the demands of his fans and sponsors. Each time he lost, he declared that he was "a better golfer" than when he was winning in early 1997. "Winning," he said, "is not always the barometer of getting better."

Woods says he first knew he was coming out of the tunnel on a cool evening in May 1999 on the practice ground at the gated Isleworth community where he lives, outside Orlando, Fla. He was preparing for the Byron Nelson Classic near Dallas, and had worked his way up from wedge shots to the middle irons. Then suddenly, on one swing, he sensed--for the first time in a year--that he had done exactly what he had been trying to accomplish. The motion felt natural and relaxed, and the contact solid. The ball flew high and straight.

Excited, he rolled another ball into place but didn't make the same swing. Another ball. Didn't get it. Another ball. Didn't get it. Then he hit another pure shot. A couple of misses. Another pure one. And another. The good swings and shots began coming with greater frequency, like a bag of popcorn taking off in the microwave. "I was able to hit them with different clubs," Woods recalls, "and different shapes--fades, draws." What's more, each shot with the same club flew at the same trajectory and the same distance. He phoned coach Harmon at his Las Vegas base and said, "I think I'm back."

Woods shot a blistering 61 in the first round of the Nelson. Although he finished tied for seventh, he was thrilled because his swing felt so good. Now he could put his whole game back together: the full swing, the short chips and lobs, the putting. And the victories.

And the victories came. He won an extraordinary 10 of 14 events during the rest of 1999 and had eight PGA Tour victories in that year, the most since Johnny Miller in 1974. And Woods won six in a row in late '99 and early 2000. Nicklaus never won more than seven Tour events in one year and never more than three in a row. With his victory in the British Open last month, Woods completed the career grand slam of pro golf's four major tournaments, a feat accomplished by only four other men: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Nicklaus. And Woods did it at age 24--two years younger than Nicklaus, whose career accomplishments Tiger had kept taped to the headboard of his bed, and in the crosshair of his ambition, since he was 10.

This year Woods has simply owned golf. He's already won six tournaments and earned $6 million in prize money, making him the all-time career money winner, with more than $17 million. Many weeks it seems, as Ernie Els, who finished second in the first three majors this year--and second four times this year to Woods alone--says, "The rest of us are playing one tournament, and there's Tiger, playing a different one."

Woods has put many Tour players on a different training regimen, forcing them to head for the gym. He's added 20 lbs. of muscle to his 6-ft. 2-in. frame since joining the Tour. In response, David Duval has transformed himself by adapting a strict, demanding exercise and weight-training program. Even Jesper Parnevik, the rail-thin, chain-smoking Swede, has been driven to pump iron and Exercycles. Woods has also prompted competitors to go easy on the 19th hole. At a dinner in St. Andrews to honor former champions, Woods recalled, Sam Snead and other older players talked about the days when they would "party until late and then play hung over." Sober-faced, Woods observed, "That doesn't work anymore."

Anyone who would compete with Woods consistently will have to play most of the par-five holes, typically longer than 500 yds., by hitting the green in two long shots, setting up a putt for a 2-under-par eagle, and an almost certain birdie. One of Woods' most telling stats is his average score on par fives: 4.38, an advantage worth 10 shots in each four-day tournament on the typical course with four par-five holes. Tour veteran Mark O'Meara, 43, a close friend and neighbor of Woods', has beaten him in tournaments and still wins some of their practice rounds. But he concedes that over time, Woods' long, straight drives "just wear you out." Though O'Meara averages 265 yds. off the tee, Woods outdrives him by 30 yds. or more and is "hitting seven-iron into greens where I'm hitting four-iron. Now, who do you think is going to get closer to the pin, on average?" he asks. "And then who do you think is going to make more birdies?"

Harmon, 56, who has coached Woods since Tiger was 17, observes that "when Tiger turned pro, he was long but wild. So he worked on that and has led in total driving. He had trouble controlling his distance with the irons, so he worked on that, and now leads in greens in regulation"--hitting the ball on the green with a chance to putt for birdie or eagle. "He was always a good putter, but he's worked to be more consistent. Whatever he sees as a weakness in his game, he turns into a strength." Harmon has tutored Greg Norman, Davis Love III, Jose Maria Olazabal and other international golf greats. He says of Woods, "He's only at about 75% of what he's capable of achieving. That's the scary part."

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Like Michael Jordan, Woods not only dominates his sport but is changing the way it is played--and the way it will be played by the next generation. "It's cool now to play golf," Woods says, and if his Tiger Woods Foundation succeeds in making courses and equipment available to more underprivileged kids, the sport will "attract the better natural athletes"--including the bigger and stronger kids, many of them black and Hispanic and Asian. "Just imagine," Woods muses, his eyes alight, "if Michael Jordan, with his size and strength and hand-eye coordination, had started playing golf early?"

Any would-be Tigers will, in fact, have to start early. Tiger's dad Earl, a Green Beret lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, took up golf in his 40s, a few years before Tiger was born. And though he became a one-handicap, his struggles convinced him that kids should be taught the game as soon as they're capable of swinging a sawed-off club. For his son, that was at 10 months. Tiger took a strong interest in the game, which, by all accounts, his parents managed to encourage without pushing and while keeping things fun.

Earl taught the basics, but Tiger couldn't hit the ball very far, so he learned to score with putts and delicate wedge shots. His first instructor, Rudy Duran, recalls that at age five "Tiger had the skill and imagination to hit high wedge shots, low ones, shots with backspin." Nicklaus, in contrast, feels he never developed first-rate shots from off the green because he didn't start playing golf seriously until age 10, when he was already big for his age and intent on smashing the ball.

What Tiger shares with Nicklaus is a first-rate mental game, a vital weapon in a sport in which major tournament pressure can crush even great players. Woods has "the ability to stay in the present during a tournament and focus on hitting one shot at a time," Duran says. Woods' profane outbursts, once common, are now rare. He has learned to laugh at himself more often, which he did even when he made a triple-bogey in the third round at the U.S. Open.

At the U.S. and British Opens, rather than rip every drive and fire his iron shots at every flag, Woods on most holes played his tee shot in the fairway and his approach shot to the safest part of the green. Woods knows he isn't a great bunker player (yet) and that the ones at St. Andrews--112 of them--are especially treacherous. So he worked hard to keep his ball out of the sand and was the one player to do so for 72 holes. He followed the example of Nicklaus, who when he had a good lead through three rounds would play conservatively and, as Harmon puts it, "let others make mistakes." So confident was Woods, with a 6-shot lead through the third round at St. Andrews, that he told an old coach, John Anselmo,"It's a done deal."

Can Woods be the greatest golfer of all time? Well, by the standard measure, he has to win 15 more major tournaments as a pro to pass Nicklaus' record of 18. Nicklaus and Woods say they feel a bond, and the older man has been generous with compliments and advice--for example, counseling Woods against playing so many events that he burns out. But Nicklaus is proud of his records and coy in some of his comments. For one: "Tiger is much like any other player who is at the top of his game." Translation: many players have a hot hand for a few seasons and then cool off. It's often a matter not of swing mechanics but of the vagaries of putting, where the eye and the touch can abandon even players with silky-looking strokes.

Adds Nicklaus: "Tiger is better than the other players by a greater margin than I was." Translation: Who does Tiger have to beat? Els and Vijay Singh, who have won two majors each? Duval and Phil Mickelson, who have won none? I had to beat Arnold Palmer, who won seven majors; Gary Player, who won nine; Lee Trevino, who won six; Tom Watson, who won eight. Speaking of the succession of seasoned players he challenged and was challenged by, Nicklaus says, "I always enjoyed that. Tiger hasn't had that yet--but he will." And we have that to look forward to.

For more pictures of Tiger Woods and his swing, go to Photo Essays at

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