Instead of fielding readers' questions this week, I thought I'd turn the floor over to one dedicated reader of this column, Hank Haney. On Sunday night we had a lively 25-minute phone conversation. I was in the press room at the BMW Championship, and he was calling from Dallas.
I've always liked Hank. He's a sweet guy. Maybe too sweet, because being Tiger Woods's swing coach puts him in an impossible position in which criticism is inevitable. When Tiger wins, it's because of Tiger's talent; when Tiger loses, it's Hank's fault. In recent weeks I had been a small part of this chorus, and Hank expressed his displeasure in a series of spicy text messages. We hugged it out on Sunday night.
"I didn't get into this looking for any credit," Haney said. "But I don't understand where so much of the blame comes from. Some of what gets written is almost comical. But I'm a human, you're a human, some of these things do hurt. I guess the great thing about the position I'm in is that I only have to please one person."
He's clearly doing that. At the BMW, Tiger was effusive in his praise of Haney. After his spectacular 62 on Saturday, Woods addressed the state of his game: "I feel that my overall plane and my swing and my release and how I play now is just so much more efficient. Bad shots aren't what they used to be, and that's what we were trying to get to. Anybody can play when they're hot, but it's how poor are your mis-hits, can you control them, and more importantly, can you fix it?
"Overall I've gotten a better understanding of my swing over the years working with Hank. You hit a couple bad shots like I did at No. 1, how I over-hooked it there, and then immediately I fixed it, and then I hit a sweet little low fading 4-iron into the second hole. That's what you have to do all the time."
Says Haney, "It is always satisfying for me to see Tiger do well. To have him say he has a better understanding of his swing, better control of his ball, it makes me very proud of him as a student."
Haney took this opportunity to address a couple of familiar criticisms about Woods's game.
"Everyone likes to peck at Tiger about his driving," he said. "He's now sixth in total driving for the season. It's hard to get much better than that. And what no one ever points out is that his stats are skewed because he only plays the really hard golf courses with really penal setups. At Kapalua" -- which Woods skips -- "it's literally impossible to miss a fairway. There's a bunch of other easy setups he never plays. You take the guys who don't play all the majors and invitationals and maybe not all of the playoff events, and it's a totally different Tour in some ways, but Tiger's numbers are still way up there."
As for the putting woes that have plagued Woods off-and-on for much of this year, Haney expressed no concern, echoing Tiger's comments all week. Woods rolled his ball beautifully at the BMW, and on Sunday night he was asked what he did differently. "Absolutely nothing," he said, unable to suppress a smile.
Haney added: "People don't acknowledge this, but putting is one part of the game where luck is involved. It's not a completely smooth surface. Grass is not always predictable. If Tiger was putting on a pool table, I'd bet on him every time. But on a golf course, with all the variables, sometimes the putts go in, sometimes they don't. Nobody makes them all. Certainly he's made more than most. It would be foolish to change the mechanics of one of the greatest putters of all time."
In the wake of Woods's blowout victory, many talked about his having reclaimed the intimidating aura that was taken away by Y.E. Yang. After finishing in fourth place, a whopping 9 strokes back, Sean O'Hair told me on Sunday, "The guy is just a stud, simple as that. I was just hoping he wouldn't make a mockery of us, but I'm afraid he did."
Haney has a counterintuitive take. "There's a media obsession about these big victories, but I don't think they mean as much as people want to believe," he says. "It's not like Tiger can take any of the eight shots with him to the Tour Championship. Certainly Tiger doesn't talk much about it. He just wants to win; he doesn't care by how many. All [a big margin of victory] means is that a great player had a great week. He said himself that he plays the game differently now, he thinks about it differently."
Indeed, last week Tiger discussed his turn-of-the-century blowouts in vaguely disparaging terms. "I almost had to play aggressively because I didn't really have too many shots to work with," he said. "I didn't have the ability to change my trajectories like I do now, change the shapes and change the spins."
In other words, he was basically a home-run hitter, likely to go deep or strike out. Now he enjoys a much higher batting average but still has plenty of power to all fields.
After a 60-year-old man nearly stole the British Open, it has become trendy to bash today's players' inability to raise their games in the majors, part of a long-standing critique of Woods's colleagues. Haney doesn't see it that way.
"The competition is so good now," he says. "It's basically competition-by-committee, because there hasn't been a consistent challenger, but there's always someone playing really well who is chasing him. At Congressional, on a very good golf course, Tiger was in the top five that week in driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation and putting. It's pretty hard to do all of those things that well in the same week. And he won by only one shot against a field that didn't have a lot of other big names. That was an eye-opener."
On Sunday night Woods declared 2009 to be one of the best years of his career even though he didn't win a major championship. Some of us may have forgotten, but Tiger is acutely aware that this time last year he was still hobbling around on a new knee and was months away from swinging a golf club. Woods seems most proud of his consistency -- throw out the screwy Match Play Championship, his first tourney after knee surgery, and he has finished worse than 11th only once this year. (He also won six times.) Sunday night I asked Haney about Woods's ability to play at such a consistently high level.
"It tells me he's put in an incredible amount of work," says Haney. "He's a tough guy, it was a tough rehab. He had a bad six-hole stretch at the British Open and everyone pounced on him, but if you stop and look at his game as a whole he's improved throughout the year and he's still improving. For all the talk about Jack and the records, Tiger's goal has always been very simple: to get better. And he is." Have a question for Alan's Mailbag? Leave it in the comments field below. Photo: Haney and Woods at the 2009 U.S. Open (Fred Vuich/SI)