Tiger Woods looks like he's swinging well, but the numbers tell a different story

Tiger Woods looks like he’s swinging well, but the numbers tell a different story

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger is back, he’s high on the second-round leader board at the Masters, and it looks like he’s swinging great. I repeat, it looks like he’s swinging great.

I pull out the iPhone. Tap “Favorites.” Tap “John Novosel.”

He answers on the first ring. “Hey, what’s happening?”

He sounds far off. Leawood, Kansas., if I had to guess.

“Tell me about Tiger,” I reply. “How’s he swinging?”

“Well, his approach on the eighth yesterday, he had 244 to the hole and he put it to about eight feet. It was a 20/6. That’s pretty close. Maybe one frame off on the downswing.”

John’s in his attic studio, a cluttered redoubt of computer gear, TV monitors, recordable disks and dog toys. I visited his workspace many times when we were co-authoring Tour Tempo: Golf’s Last Secret Finally Revealed, which recently went into its 11th printing.

“On the thirteenth tee,” John continues, “Tiger hit hit a little draw around the corner, turned out perfect. He was 19/6.”

Nineteen? With a fairway metal? And then I’m thinking, He’s not the Tiger of old.

Not following me? Okay, a quick tutorial. John Novosel, a long-ago football center at Kansas State, is the tinkerer/inventor who discovered that virtually all tour-quality golfers — no matter how frantically or leisurely they swing — have the exact same tempo: a 3-to-1 elapsed-time ratio of backswing to forward swing, measured to impact. This ratio is expressed is frames of videotape — e.g., 27 frames to the top of the backswing and 9 frames down to impact for a relatively slow, Bobby Jones-type swing. (A “27/9” in Tour Tempo lingo.) Jack Nicklaus in his prime was a 24/8, Ben Hogan was a brisk 21/7, etc.*

*Novosel allows for a plus-or-minus-one-frame margin of error due to his inability to fractionalize frame measurements. A swing timed at 25/8 or 27/10 meets the 3-to-1 standard, but a jog-and-dash 31/6 sends your tee shot into the neighboring marsh.

What makes a player great, John will tell you, is not the speed of the swing — 21/7 is no better than 24/8 — but the consistency of the player’s tempo. And guess what? After a decade of timing golf swings, John has never encountered a more consistent swinger than Tiger Woods — the Tiger Woods of 2002, that is. Videotape of the 2002 U.S. Open has Woods swinging at a machine-like 24/8 on all his full swings, from the practice rounds right up to the trophy ceremony. “What he did at Bethpage was the best I’ve ever seen,” John says. “Nobody comes close to the shot-after-shot consistency he showed that week.”

That’s what I mean when I refer to “the Tiger of old.” But that Tiger wandered off the reservation in the mid-aughts, firing long-time swing coach Butch Harmon to pursue major swing changes with Hank Haney. The swing changes may or may not have made Woods a better player, but there’s no denying this: they altered his tempo. The swing of the transitional Tiger became furiously fast — four frames quicker on the backswing, a good two frames speedier back to impact. Result: drives that peeled off into the trees. “You take four frames out of 24, that’s a fifth of a second,” John explains. “One frame on the downswing, that’s three feet of clubhead movement.”

That leads us to the current irony: Woods, the player with the most consistent tempo ever measured, is now almost unique in that he doesn’t swing to the classic 3-to-1 ratio. That’s why I roll my eyes over Tiger’s 19/6 pass at the ball on thirteen. “I’ve never seen him get down to 19 with a wood,” says John, affecting scientific indifference. “Moe Norman was 18/6, but he had a much shorter swing.”

Now it’s Friday afternoon, round two of the Masters, and the bad boy has just made the turn in 36. But the Titan of Tempo is running day-old video of Woods on No. 10 tee. Tiger pulls 3-wood, tries to draw one around the corner, and watches impassively as his ball clips a tree and lands in the rough. John, in Leawood, quietly crunches his numbers before delivering the verdict: “That was a 20/6, not too bad. But he’s consistently fast on the downswing. Tiger’s better at 21/7 or 20/7. That one frame is a big difference on the downswing.”*

*That one frame is also a little different in that John has to work harder to get it. The standard for High Definition video is 60 images per second instead of the old broadcast standard of 30, forcing John to convert his data to the Tour Tempo standard. 'It’s taking me a bit longer to time a swing,' he says, worried that U.S. per capita productivity will plunge.

Is Novosel saying that Tiger Woods is no longer the best golfer in the world? Certainly not. John’s merely saying that he’s no longer Tiger Woods at his best.

Documented proof that Tiger can, and often does, win with his B game.