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Loss of Tempo Under Pressure Is Source of Tiger Woods' Troubles

GOLF.com at St. Andrews: Round 1 Recap
Golf Magazine's Jeff Ritter and Alan Shipnuck of Sports Illustrated break down the opening round of the 2015 British Open.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — An imaginary reader from Minnesota writes, “You keep going on about Tiger’s broken tempo. Am I supposed to give a damn?” A second imaginary reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, writes, “Got it, history’s greatest golfer is a millisecond quicker than he used to be. Wow. Wake me when you’ve stopped beating that dead horse.”

Thus encouraged, I’m back with the latest installment of “Tiger’s Tempo,” GOLF.com’s oldest continuously-running feature. My partner, as always, is John Novosel, discoverer of the 3-to-1 backswing-to-downswing ratio and co-author of Tour Tempo: Golf’s Last Secret Finally Revealed and Tour Tempo 2: The Short Game and Beyond.

(Full disclosure: I assisted Novosel with both books, making me a tempo expert in my own right.)

Anyway, from my seat in a major-championship press tent I call Novosel at his home in Leawood, Ks., and he provides me with Tiger’s latest tempo numbers — 18/7, 21/6, 23/6, whatever. We then compare those sorry stats to “the Tiger of old,” who was a consistent 24/8 with every club in his bag and — coincidentally — hit it farther and straighter than anyone ever had.

Thursday’s numbers were depressingly familiar. Woods, despite swinging smoothly during warm-ups, chunked an iron off the first tee of the Old Course, rinsed his second shot in the Swilcan Burn, and went on to shoot 76 in the first round of the Open Championship. “It’s those six-frame downswings that are killing him,” said Novosel, using Tour Tempo lingo that, frankly, I am tired of explaining. Read the book.

Photo:

Tiger Woods during the first round of the 2015 Open Championship at St. Andrews.

But as I said, Novosel had little new to report. Tiger’s tempo has been broken for years now. In the heat of competition, he rushes his downswing and loses control of the clubface. Shots go right. Shots go left. Tiger, who once had the most dependable timing in golf, lets the club fall to the ground and turns away in disgust.

Only recently, though, has Tiger’s timing dilemma attracted mainstream attention. Two weeks ago, at the Greenbrier Classic, CBS swing analyst Peter Kostis presented viewers a same-day, synchronized, side-by-side comparison of Woods on the driving-range and in competition. Range Tiger, shown on the left of the screen, had an unhurried transition from the top, but Tournament Tiger raced down, his head dipping several inches with the hit. Furthermore, the Tiger on the right reached the impact position when Range Tiger’s clubhead was still above his right hip — proof, if proof was needed, that Woods’s tempo deviates dramatically from swing to swing.

“It's tension that creates that quickness,” said Kostis. Analyst Nick Faldo agreed, pointing out that Woods tends to lose his tempo when there is water or out-of-bounds on a hole. Said Faldo, “Under pressure he doesn’t like certain shots and he’s unable to deal with them.”

That, of course, is precisely what Novosel has been documenting for the better part of a decade. The bigger question, posed by another imaginary reader, is why. “Why does it matter that Tiger swings a bit faster on the course?”

My answer: It doesn’t. Tiger can swing as fast as he wants, as long as he adheres to the 3-to-1 rhythm.

It’s that simple. Tempo was golf’s last secret because nobody, not even the world’s best players, really knew what it was. No one could quantify tempo, no one could analyze tempo, and no one could teach tempo — until Novosel connected the dots. Today we understand that the 3-to-1 ratio is not the personal preference of scratch-or-better golfers, but rather the temporal expression of a biomechanical constant. Three-to-1 reflects the most efficient and powerful kinematic sequence — legs, hips, upper body, arms, hands — from the top of the swing through impact. Fire those body parts in the right order and you can deliver a square clubface to the golf ball at speeds of well over 100 mph. Fire them out of order and you’re “over the top,” “stuck,” or “spinning out.” Your ball winds up in the gorse.

Tiger’s dilemma, in other words, is every golfer’s dilemma. There’s only one rhythm that works, and you either accept that or you accept the consequences.

A real reader, from Charlotte, N.C., wonders why Tiger doesn’t simply correct his tempo. “Can’t he just go to Novosel and take some tempo lessons? Can’t he just go back to 3-to-1?”

Yes, but it probably wouldn’t help. Tiger is pretty close to 3-to-1 now, when he’s practicing — 20/7 on one swing, 22/7 on the next, occasionally sticking the finish with a 21/7. Kostis and Faldo got it right when they blamed his bad shots on tension. These days, Tiger is tight. Anxious. He’s aware that millions — not to mention Kostis, Faldo and yours truly — are watching his every move. Woods feels the scrutiny from his tensing toes to his bobbing head. How else to explain that first-tee duffed iron and second-shot water ball on a course where he once went four times ‘round without ever finding a bunker?

So yes, dear readers, you are supposed to give a damn. But to address your concerns, I’m suspending “Tiger’s Tempo” until further notice — or at least until Novosel and I have something new to report. Until then, we leave you with Tiger’s swing on the 14th hole, first round, second shot, struck with a fairway metal.

21/6.

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