How can you tell that Tiger Woods is back? The proof is in the tempo

Tiger Woods, Round 2, 2012 U.S. Open
John Biever / SI
The numbers don’t lie: Tiger Woods is grooving his swing with a classic tempo.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Is Tiger back? It would seem so, judging from Woods’s victory two weeks ago at the Memorial and his impressive play through two rounds of the U.S. Open. But when I need to know the true state of a pro’s game, I ring up John Novosel at his Leawood, Kan., studio.

“Hey, what’s happening?” he answered this afternoon.

“You know the drill,” I said from my desk in the press tent. “What are Tiger’s numbers?”

“Mostly sevens,” Novosel said. “Two-to-one on his putts. Everything’s looking good.”

Some of you may not follow this jargon, so I will explain. Novosel is co-author (as am I) of the golf instructionals, Tour Tempo and Tour Tempo 2, which established that virtually all tour players, no matter how fast or slow their swings, have the same full-swing tempo -- that is, their backswings take three times as long as their downswings. Good tempo, we argue, does not reside in any specific pace or elapsed time, but in the consistency of the golfer’s timing. Tiger Woods, circa 2000, had the best tempo in golf because it never varied. But in recent years, while cycling through swing coaches, he has had the worst tempo in golf. His swing times have been wildly erratic.*

* Novosel has tracked Tiger’s tempo for years, culling his data from tournament video. Woods used to be a robotic “24/8,” which is Tour Tempo-ese for a swing that consumes 24 frames of video from takeaway to the top, followed by 8 frames back down to impact. But as recently as this year’s Masters, a technique-obsessed Woods swung with tempo ratios as weird as 24/6 and 20/8, which resulted in many wayward shots.

Anyway, Novosel told me that Tiger’s years of struggle may be over. “Yesterday he hit an iron approach to six feet on the fourth hole. That swing was a 22/7. His tee shots today, the ones that split the fairway, were 20/7. All those 7-frame downswings are a really good sign.”

They’re a good sign because Tiger’s faster-than-before swing needs to be close to 21/7 or 18/6 to achieve the 3-to-1 ratio. “But he doesn’t seem to handle the faster downswing well,” Novosel said. “Remember at the Masters, where he was pulling it over two fairways? Those were six-frames-down swings. He pulled one into the rough on No. 2  today, and that was a 20/6 swing. Six-down still bothers him.”

But it’s not bothering him much. “Really,” Novosel continued, “Tiger is swinging very, very well, better than we’ve seen in years. He’s not wasting frames on all that head-bobbing. And you won’t believe the difference in the 5-10-15 rule.”

Okay, hit the pause button. The “5-10-15 rule” is another Novosel discovery. He’s learned, by timing thousands of tour-pro swings, that virtually all the pros -- fast-swingers and slow-swingers alike -- take the same time to reach three backswing check points. At frame 5, the hands are over the back leg. At frame 10 the club is parallel to the ground. At frame 15 the club is perpendicular to the ground. Woods, fussing over his fundamentals, “was taking 7 or 8 frames to get to that first check point.”

“Because --”

“Because he was thinking too much. But he’s only one frame off now. He’s no longer tentative on the takeaway. He’s swinging it back.”

Heeding the imperative to plug our sequel (subtitled The Short Game and Beyond and available at all your better e-stores), I asked Novosel to grade Tiger’s short-game tempo.

“Same thing,” he said. “He’s showing the two-to-one standard on all his greenside shots and putts. He holed a three-footer today with a 14/7 stroke, and he made a downhiller yesterday that was 16/8, his old standby. That pitch out of the rough a while ago was another 16/8. Perfect.”

“How about that incredible lob shot he holed at the Memorial? That was a real long swing for a shot from the collar.”

Novosel didn’t have to check his notes. “That was a 21/10! How great is that?”

To sum up, Novosel’s numbers suggest that Woods has practiced his new moves to the point that they have become second nature. Consequently, he is once again making a reflexive, athletic pass at the ball and hitting the ball straight -- or curving it -- at will.

Does Tiger regaining his tempo make him the favorite to win at Olympic? Yeah, it does. It makes him the favorite to win anywhere.

And forgive me for saying this: It’s about time.

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