Why Tiger Can't Drive

Why Tiger Can’t Drive

Tiger Woods's driving woes continued at the Masters.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

It’s the biggest mystery in sports. Tiger Woods is the smartest player ever when it comes to the game — even smarter than Jack Nicklaus — so why does he keep working on the wrong thing in his swing?

On Sunday at the Masters, Woods had another bad driving day, the kind that has plagued him for years. If you listen to his comments, you keep hear him saying the same thing: “I’m stuck, I’m stuck.” (Also, “Tiger Woods, you suck!”)

What he means by “stuck” is that the club is too far behind him as he is coming into impact. With his practice swings before and after he hits the driver, he continues to exaggerate getting the club more out in front of his body on the downswing. He is convinced that being “stuck” is the reason he is so erratic with the driver.

From everything we know about his focus and dedication, if Woods were working on the right thing in the right way, he would have fixed it by now. How is it possible that the most intelligent, talented athlete to ever play the game hasn’t been able to get the driver under control? He’s still struggling because “being stuck” isn’t his problem.

Woods has always been a player who likes and needs to release the club through impact. While some players try to keep the club, arms and body working together as they make contact, Tiger’s natural instinct is to aggressively let go and extend the club past his body to the target. The way Hank Haney has him swinging the club, however, he can’t let go through impact, which leads to misses in both directions.

When he tries to get “unstuck,” he is prone to two mistakes. First, the club gets too far out in front of his body, so when he releases normally he hits an enormous pull like he did on the first hole at the Masters on Sunday. The other miss happens when the club is excessively steep coming down: his body gets too far out in front of the club, and he blows it way right like he did on No. 11.

He’s trying to fix his bad shot by getting the club out in front of him, which is the reason for the bad shot. I mean, how does a player of Woods’s talent hit drop-kick sky balls with the 3-wood like he did on 13? Where are the 3-wood and long-iron stingers from the tee that he had a decade ago? That shot was the most effective weapon in sports since the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky-hook. He simply can’t hit that shot with the golf swing he has been working on with Haney.

For Woods to dominate professional golf like he should, he needs to let the club get behind him earlier in the downswing so he can release it fully through impact. A shallower angle of attack would get the clubface slightly more open, facilitate a more inside attack and allow him to let go again through impact. This would be closer to how Tiger played when he dominated the ’97 Masters field by 12 and held all four majors at the same time a decade ago. Making this change would not only allow him to hit his driver hard and straight again, it would also make it possible for him to hit the stinger.

Tiger needs to hit golf shots again instead of trying to make a golf swing that matches the image in someone else’s head. Think about the amazing shots he hit at Augusta. Executing the 60-yard hook into the ninth green on Thursday or the moon shot from the right trees on the 11th on Sunday had nothing to do with a technical swing; both were instinctive golf shots. He’s at his best when he’s trying to hit golf shots, not trying to make a swing that’s not in his nature.

I’m not saying he should fire his coach. I like Haney. He obviously understands the golf swing, he has worked with other major champions and he can easily change Tiger’s angle of attack. But with Woods’s driving, both coach and player are so stuck on the subject of “being stuck” that they can’t see the real problem.

Woods needs to give himself permission to attack the ball from slightly inside the target line again. A draw is his natural shot-shape, but he is so hung up on getting the club in front of his body on the way down that he has taken the draw off the table. The difficulty here is that both Haney and Tiger are known for their stubbornness. To change, Tiger would have to admit he has been going about fixing the driver in the wrong way. It’s a battle between his sharp intelligence and his legendary stubbornness. Right now, stubbornness is winning.

I know, I know, it’s not like he’s playing badly, and fourth place at the Masters after a five-month layoff is impressive. Every player on Tour would love to have Woods’s record under Haney. Heck, most Hall of Famers would like to have his record with Haney. On the other hand, I have no idea how he shot a 69 on Sunday, driving it the way he did. Any other Tour player, playing from where Tiger drove it, would not break 80. Tiger’s ability to score and relentlessly compete is without a rival, but the U.S. Open is not the Masters. If Woods drives like that at Pebble Beach in June, he won’t break 80.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Let’s hope Woods looks at his swing from a different perspective sooner rather than later, or he could finish 2010 no closer to Nicklaus’s record 18 majors.

And now, about those chipping issues …

Another interesting thing about Tiger’s game was the difficulty he had chipping. The 2010 Masters was not only his first tournament in five months, it was his first under the Tour’s new groove policy. The grooves on the old wedges allowed the players to hit low shots with a crisp swing (like striking a match) that would hit the green and stop. The new grooves won’t let you do that.

Woods kept hitting low skidders that didn’t catch, and he never made the adjustment to a higher, softer shot during the tournament. With the old grooves, players could stop shots with spin. With the new grooves, players have to stop the ball with trajectory. Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim hit super-high shots around the greens throughout the tournament. This is how it was done “way back” in the 80’s, with a long swing, open clubface, wide stance and a great deal of courage. I have no doubt Tiger can hit those shots, but he didn’t at Augusta.

The greens at Pebble Beach could get super hard at the U.S. Open in June, making this shot critical to getting the ball up and down.

Brady Riggs is director of instruction at Woodley Lakes Golf Club in Van Nuys, Calif. He is the host of Ask the Top 100 Live! on Golf.com Tuesdays at noon EST.