Earl Woods, the father of the most enigmatic golfer the world has seen, once said: ‘Tiger knew how to swing a club before he could walk’. Considering that at the age of three Tiger Woods shot a 48 for nine holes, this is probably not much of an exaggeration. It’s as though the golfing gods set out to construct the ultimate golfer. And I am sure they must feel it was a job well done.
It was in 1997 that a new champion exploded on to the world golf scene – not just any old champion but one who transformed the game and the public’s perception of the game. Tiger Woods gave golf a ‘wow’ factor. For many people, a game steeped in an elitist country club tradition became exciting for the first time, thanks to the daring and unorthodox play of the 23-year-old, charismatic, fist-pumping African- American-Thai giant.
For the next six years Tiger rewrote the record books: most money won in a season; youngest player to complete a career grand slam of majors; first player to be reigning champion of all four majors; first to have won the US Open by 15 shots – the biggest margin ever recorded in a major tournament.
Tiger is outstanding, but perhaps not infallible. He has lost form over the past two years and it is an open question whether he will be able to recover his former dominance of the game. His comeback plan defies orthodoxy. But then, so did his original rise to glory.
Earl Woods clearly set out with the intention of turning his son into a golfing great. In a sport where the importance of well-grooved, precise technique is paramount, Tiger’s apparently effortless talent for swinging a golf club is no doubt the result of a childhood spent training the neural patterns of a golf swing. Just as Andre Agassi was seen on variety shows as a child wielding a tennis racquet, Tiger appeared on US television putting against comedian Bob Hope at the age of two. Aged eight, he won the first of his five Optimist International Junior Championships. He was the youngest US Junior Amateur Champion at 15 and won three consecutive US amateur titles.
Like Roger Federer (see SIB 44), Tiger has brought a new level of completeness to his sport. Between 1999 and 2002 he mastered every aspect of the game. Physically, technically and mentally he was streets ahead of the entire professional pack. He was a daunting physical presence in a sport where fitness had never been considered a determining factor. At 6ft 2in (1m 85cm) and 180lb (81.8kg), his height gives him great leverage and his lean structure and flexibility easily accommodate golf’s demands for rotation.
Tiger’s obvious strength and strong core turn his baseline physical attributes into a power-packed swing. He is one of the biggest drivers on the tour, regularly surpassing 300m. His short game is the epitome of creativity and poise. From long curling putts to lofty chips over bunkers, it is a joy to watch.
To this formidable repertoire, Woods adds mental toughness. In 2000, at the Pebble Pro-Am, he made up an incredible seven-stroke deficit over the final eight holes to claim a two-stroke victory over Matt Gogel and Vijay Singh. Only the likes of Michael Jordan hitting a clutch three-pointer or Johnny Wilkinson slotting home that infamous drop goal in the rugby world cup final are comparable ‘pressure players’.
Mental toughness delivers consistency: 55 PGA Tour and international event victories. In 1999 Woods won 11 tournaments and came second once, in 2000 it was 11 and 5, in 2001 it was 5 and 0 and in 2002, 5 and 2. It also fuels self-belief and an air of invincibility. JC Snead said of Jack Nicklaus: ‘He knew he was gonna beat you, you knew he was gonna beat you, and he knew you knew he was gonna beat you’. This is probably even more true of Tiger Woods. But performing well under pressure takes more than just supreme confidence, it’s also about mental and physical routine: blocking out distractions and having the ability to take one shot at a time. Woods has worked hard to achieve this control.
When Tiger Woods joined the professional golf tour in 1996 he weighed 155lb (70.4kg). Aware that his ability to generate massive clubhead speed put his joints – in particular his back – at risk of injury, and wanting a complete swing that maximised the large torque-producing muscles of his body, Tiger made it a priority to bulk up. He is now 35lb heavier and confidently says that he has never suffered low back pain. He is a keen runner, considering this important to maintain body balance, stability and cardiovascular fitness.
It was 2002 when things started to go wrong for Woods. For most of the year he was suffering severe discomfort with a knee injury and that December he had arthroscopic surgery to remove fluid that had built up and address inflammation in and around the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee – from which he had previously had a benign tumor removed in 1994. Most ACL injuries are due to rotational trauma, but in Tiger’s case the injury was chronic, resulting from excessive repeated valgus positioning and tibiofemoral rotation.
Although not the most common cause of injury in golf, the knee can still be a problem. During the back swing, the left knee (for a righthander) is forced into external tibial rotation as the pelvis rotates to the right, and a valgus force is imparted on the knee as the weight transfers on to the medial border of the left foot and the ankle everts.
On follow-through the weight transfers to the lateral border of the foot and the tibia internally rotates as the femur externally rotates while the trunk and pelvis powerfully uncoil into left rotation.
Tiger Woods’ swing involves a huge trunk rotation, and he may just possibly have set himself up for his knee injury back in 1997 when he deliberately remodelled his swing. His aim was to concentrate on body rotation and decrease his hand and forearm action. The result was a slight decrease in distance but an increase in accuracy, which brought home another seven major championships. But might it also have delivered an increase in rotational load through that left knee joint?
A key in preventing knee injury is to ensure there is no decrease in internal tibial rotation. Technique, natural mechanical alignment and, importantly, adequate rotation further up the chain need to be addressed in a golfer suffering from pain relating to rotational overload.
Both 2003 and 2004 were bad years for Tiger Woods, and it is probably not coincidental that the downturn seems to date from the time when his knee started to give him real problems. His reduced accuracy when driving seemed to kick off a negative chain of events. Playing his second shots from the rough made it far more difficult to put the ball close to the pin which then put his short game under a lot of pressure. His knee injury has now forced him to undergo a series of changes to his swing technique.
Thoracic spine problems are also often an issue. In 2004, Woods suffered right-sided thoracic spine pain and stiffness after an awkward sleep on a flight. Some costovertebral joints lost their normal sliding motion and muscle spasm ensued. The costovertebral joints couldn’t close down with right-sided rotation, causing Woods to lose range of movement, and subsequently power, on his back swing. All golfers need to do regular thoracic spine rotation stretches.
Like Lance Armstrong (see SIB 45), Woods is no quitter. He has said: ‘If you’re not going forwards, then you’re going backwards. The whole idea is to keep going forwards and keep getting better.’ He calls 2004 his ‘foundation’ year: for a second time he decided to remodel his swing, this time to avert the stress placed through his left knee. It is not easy to reinvent your game in the full glare of public scrutiny, but there are glimmers of optimism in Woods’ performance statistics from last season, with a string of top 10 finishes. Woods insists it is only a matter of time until he converts these into tour victories.
Jim McLean, a respected US golfer, doubts that the changes in Tiger’s swing are for the better. He talks of how the swing has evolved from its perfect arc to a more in-toout path. This path produces a natural draw (a right-hander works the ball from right to left as it moves through the air), which can suit players with a shorter motion and more hand action, but which seems like a big mistake for a power player such as Woods.
McLean also observes that Woods’ left foot is much less stable and controlled than four years ago, compromising his balance and rhythm through the swing. Butch Harmon, Tiger’s old coach, agrees.
To be considered one of the greats in the history of sport, longevity and consistency are prerequisites. In a sport, such as golf, where players have careers that can span beyond 20 years, it is inevitable that a player will go through a series of peaks and troughs of performance as they manage their game and the adverse effects a repetitive sport can place on their body. So many factors can affect performance in the sporting arena. Of late, Tiger seems to be finding his game. He is confident that he is about to reclaim his place as the dominant force in world golf and only a hardened gainsayer would deny him the benefit of the doubt – 2005 will be a fascinating season in international golf.