Why was Tiger a mess at Valhalla? It all comes down to tempo

Tiger Woods hits his second shot on the par-5 18th hole during the second round of the PGA Championship.
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LOUISVILLE — It has become a familiar ritual. I stare at a giant screen at the front of a press tent, scribbling occasionally in my reporter’s notebook, until Tiger Woods fats a 7-iron or hits a tee shot that veers left and flushes a flock of starlings. Then, with a knowing nod, I reach for my iPhone, tap “Favorites,” and tap “John Novosel.”

Thursday was a little different. Watching the first round of the PGA Championship, I saw Woods hit a wildly errant drive off the first tee (his tenth). Minutes later, I saw him pound the turf with his club and deliver an F-bomb after skanking one into a lateral hazard on the par-4 second hole. I was literally pulling the phone out of my pocket when an e-mail appeared on my laptop: “I got Tiger on that snap hook into the water. The tempo was 20/6. It was very clear he rushed the downswing.”

Friday, watching Woods try to improve on a first-round 74, I reached Novosel on the lesson tee at Alvamar Golf Club in Lawrence, Kan. John promptly handed the phone to his teaching-pro son, John Novosel Jr., who confirmed that bad tempo had caused Tiger’s ugly shots. Junior said, “When you combine a six-frames downswing with his head bobbing up and down, you get wild shots.”

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I probably need to make things clearer for those of you who have not read the 2003 best-seller, Tour Tempo: Golf’s Last Secret Finally Revealed. Novosel Sr., my co-author, is the basement inventor who discovered that virtually all plus-handicap golfers — no matter how quickly or slowly they swing the club — have the exact same tempo: a 3-to-1 elapsed-time ratio of backswing to forward swing. This ratio is expressed in frames of videotape — e.g., 27 frames to the top of the backswing and 9 frames down to impact for a relatively slow, Fred Couples-type swing. (A “27/9” in Tour Tempo lingo.) Jack Nicklaus was a 24/8, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson is a crisp 21/7, etc.*

*Novosel allows for a plus-or-minus-one-frame margin of error due to his inability to fractionalize frame measurements. If you’re 20/7 on one drive and 22/7 on the next, he’ll put you down as a 21/7 guy and welcome you to the 3-to-1 club.

The important thing, Novosel’s data shows, is not the speed of one’s swing — 18/6 is no better than 21/9 — but the consistency of one’s tempo. Woods, before he started changing swing coaches the way a snake sheds skin, was the benchmark for consistent tempo. “A decade ago,” Novosel says, “I clocked Tiger at 24/8 almost every time he swung a club. His timing was amazing.”

Emphasis on was. These days, Woods is more of a 21/7 — or should I say, more or less? Swing changes and injuries have damaged his internal clock to the point that he rarely meets the Tour Tempo standard on consecutive swings. “Pros often lose their tempo when they’re making swing changes,” Novosel Jr. said this afternoon, “but they usually return to their natural rhythm with time. Tiger, unfortunately, has not. Not on the course, anyway.”

Huh? Not on the course?

“He’s a pretty consistent 21/7 on the range,” Junior said, “and if he misses, it’s on the slow side, maybe 22/8.”

I jotted down both numbers, along with the 21/7 Woods clocked on the first drive of his Wednesday afternoon practice round. They supported my belief — and the golfer’s own growing sense — that he’s become a first-class range rat at the expense of his once-unsurpassed scoring skills. (“My swing was dialed in on the range,” a gloomy Tiger said after his first-round struggles. “I didn’t carry it to the golf course.”)

“A lot of people fight that too-fast downswing when they’re playing,” Junior added. “Not just Tiger.”

True. But how often do you hear Tiger Woods compared to “a lot of people”? And how often do you hear a respected golf analyst assert that the game’s greatest player has the “driver yips”? I’ve heard that and worse this week at Valhalla, and each and every critique implies that anxiety is the disrupter of Tiger’s tempo. No longer confident in his technique, he lurches into the ball where he once glided; he heaves where he once swooshed. Second-round leader Rory McIlroy, meanwhile, smacks 340-yard drives down the middle with consistent 21/7 timing.

Scoff if you will at the Novosels’ contention that a mere fraction of a second separates Rory’s drives into the fairway from Tiger’s drives into the trees. The fact is, as Novosel Sr. likes to point out, “One frame on the downswing, that’s three feet of clubhead movement.” Tempo, in other words, is destiny — if you make your living inside the ropes.

So there I was on a damp Kentucky afternoon, watching Woods struggle to make the cut. He’s made more bogeys than birdies, and his body language says it’s a lost cause. But now, when he curses or grimaces or lets the club fall from his hands, I don’t reach for my phone. I don’t call the Novosels. I just stare at the big screen and shake my head.

Sometimes the data are just too sad to contemplate.

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