At the Players last week, Tiger Woods played a practice round with Jay Haas, the veteran tour player. Bill Harmon, Butch’s kid brother and a prominent teacher himself, was walking around with them. Jay made the move he’s made for 40 years: pick it straight up, point the shaft to right field, drop the hands down and in, make a hard left-hand turn. It’s not a thing of beauty, but it has worked forever.
“Tell you what,” Tiger said to Bill. “Jay’s swing has never changed.”
Tiger’s has. He came to Butch Harmon with a beautiful, flowing natural golf swing as a 17-year-old and basically was still using that same swing when he won the Masters by 12 shots in 1997 at age 21. By 2000, Tiger had become much stronger and heavier, and he worked with Butch to tighten the swing at the top with the particular goal of controlling trajectory and distances. That year he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots.
In 2002, Tiger fired Butch and two years later started working with Hank Haney, who taught Woods’s friend Mark O’Meara. Under Haney, Woods adapted a much flatter backswing and started making a more pronounced squatting move in the downswing. Woods continued to be the world’s most dominant golfer with this new swing, and while his iron play was often spectacular, his driving game was erratic. On Monday night, Haney issued a long statement announcing that he was leaving Tiger. On Tuesday morning, the former Tour player Brandel Chamblee, a Golf Channel analyst and an SI contributor, suggested that Bill Harmon would be an ideal swing coach for Woods. On Tuesday night, Bill Harmon was saying that the state of Tiger’s golf swing is likely the least of his problems.
Still, he was struck by what Tiger said about Jay’s golf swing.
“I haven’t been asked, and I don’t think I’m going to be asked, but if Tiger did ask, the coolest thing about it would be to have the opportunity to try to help him get his life back together,” Harmon said in an hour-long telephone interview. “That’s what interests me. If I could help him with recovery — and he’s talked about being in recovery, from what I don’t know — that’s the greatest thing I could do. It’s what I do. I’ve been a recovering alcoholic for 17 years and five months now. Recovery informs my teaching. I start with the premise that the student admits he has a problem and wants to get better. And as the student improves, it’s not the teacher who looks good. It’s the student.”
Tiger’s known Bill Harmon for years. He surely knows that Bill is one-of-a-kind. (Find another teacher who talks that way, and who is so open.) As a teacher, Bill is looking at the whole person, and if Tiger is not comfortable with that, he’d never want Bill as his teacher anyhow.
Harmon: “To me, the astounding thing about Tiger all these years is not just his talent. And he has more talent than anybody except maybe Nicklaus. It’s not just his capacity for work, which is extraordinary. It’s his hyper-focus. That’s his 15th club. And with what he’s been through, that hyper-focus has to be shattered right now. Look, the three most important people in the world to him, his wife and his two children, are the three people who have been hurt most by how he led his life. That’s how it is, the innocent bystanders get hurt the worst.
“And it’s going to take time to undo the damage that’s been done there. He has to change his habits, change who his friends are. Right now, golf shouldn’t even be important to him. And the healing process is going to be harder for him than it is for others because he doesn’t get to do it with any anonymity. Addiction ruins families. Recovery brings them back again.”
As for his golf game, Bill has some ideas there, too, but none of that means anything until recovery is underway. “He can win tournaments while he’s working on the other stuff,” Harmon said. “And the golf is important to him, maybe now more than ever because it’s probably the one thing that can give him a feeling of normalcy now. But what are tournament wins going to do to improve the lives of the people he’s hurt most now?”
On the technical side, Harmon feels that Woods’s backswing is simply far too flat. “Golfers with really fast explosive hip rotation, like Tiger, tend to get flatter on the downswing. So if you start flat, where does that leave you to go? I’m not really sure what he’s doing now. Some of the practice swings look like a gymnast’s two-minute floor exercise. The golf swing is a second and a half. It shouldn’t be that complicated.”
When Harmon walked around with Woods the other day at the Players, they didn’t talk about technical golf matters at all, except in one regard. Tiger wanted to know if Butch still had the weakest left hand position of anybody in golf. Yes, Bill said, he did.
They laughed, good naturedly, about that, how one of the greatest teachers in the game can’t fix his own grip.
Of course, that’s the nature of the beast. For Butch to fix his grip, he’d first have to admit he had a problem. And he’s happy with his grip just where it is. Tiger may like his grip, but other things in his life, on and off the course, he surely does not. And that’s where a good teacher might come in.