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What Happened to Tiger Woods?

SO, WHAT DID EXACTLY HAPPEN TO TIGER?

The philosopher Alan Watts likened observing life to peering at a cat through a slit in a fence. Depending on which time you peer through the slit, you may find yourself looking at either the head, the tail or the body. Yet as we know, the head always precedes the body and the body always precedes the tail. So, whilst we know that there is no ‘head’ event or ‘tail’ event, life does tend to present itself to us as isolated chapters instead of a series of happenings.   

It’s ridiculously easy to look at Tiger Woods’s career in the same way and merely zoom into all of the drama that has transpired since 2009, but the fact is that his tail had been driving his head for some time by that stage and if there is anyone to blame in the unfolding debacle it would be entirely innocent and likeable Australian, Aaron Baddeley.

As a consultant to European and PGA Tour players for the past twenty-five years, I can say with confidence that the paper trail that ultimately culminates in a player’s elevated performances can normally be attributed to a physical change which wholly liberates the golfer. Either a destructive shot has been technically removed like a cancer or a new found physical capacity has finally flourished inciting either increased strength or short game artistry.

We know on paper golf is not a difficult game. The exam paper is laid out in front of you; the course is a map which is best followed and not fought. You don’t need sign posts either, the roads are numbered from one to eighteen and you can clearly see how far the end of each road is within your detailed yardage book. Areas of danger are clearly marked with red stakes in the ground. To make this navigation easier on the professional tours, they even allow you a secondary brain to accompany you in the form of a caddy. So, you see, on paper golf is not a difficult game.

So where is the gap between acknowledging this reality and putting winning scores on the table?

To strengthen the argument (which ultimately fails at the end of this piece) consider this analogy. You and NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon are to race each other. As you walk to your car you notice that whilst your vehicle looks like the typical NASCAR animal with its 7 litre engine, poor Jeff is opening the door of a 1978 Oldsmobile Salon. As you both jockey up to the start line, you smugly peer across knowing that Jeff has as much chance of beating you in his antique banger as you would trying to find a virgin in a maternity ward.

Golf is the same as this in many ways. Jeff’s experience, strategical prowess and competitive knowledge of racing are rendered useless in the face of competing against an amateur who is physically armed in a superior way. You can’t bring a knife to a gun fight, or can you?

So yes, we all know what constitutes a great round of golf; you hit fairways, you hit greens, you hole putts. Equally, we drive around a NASCAR track as fast as we can and we win the race.

You can see why any professional who drives the powerless 1978 Oldsmobile Salon around the tour venues would want to upgrade can’t you? And, if there is an acute awareness of this shortcoming in potency, it would certainly be enough to incite an obsessive and neurotic panic to the players psyche.    

But this was never Tiger was it? It never seemed that Tiger was wanting in the physical department as he nonchalantly hit sand irons in Augusta’s 18th hole.

History has paradoxically thrown a spanner into this power argument though with the likes of Zach Johnson, Mike Weir, Graeme McDowell, Spieth and Web Simpson all winning majors in the modern era.

What Tiger had and Jack did before him, was the perfect marriage between strategical IQ and the physical ability to execute that plan.

So what happened?

If you look at the body of work or more poignantly the structures of the mind that Tiger put in place with his father Earl Woods, they were mostly based around routine and execution. Earl Woods may not have had a PhD in swing technique, but as a Vietnam Vet he knew about pressure relying on proven military mantras such as ‘trust the training’ when the pressure to execute was very real.

Much of golf psychology is a junk science, it is largely jargon spouted from theorists in lab coats who know nothing of the encroaching TV cameras, aggressive competitors, rowdy crowds and the chance to enter the history books. Most reside in idealistic think tanks and that’s where the majority should remain.

I’d listen to Butch Harmon (another Vietnam Vet) and Earl Woods all day long about the realities of pulling a trigger under the gun. Again, Butch Harmon wouldn’t know the gamma forces behind the most powerful downswings in golf, but then again, he doesn’t need or want to, all Butch has been interested during his career is the functionality of his players in tournaments which in essence is what Tiger was so good at until 2009. Routine and execution are what really separated Tiger from the rest because when you REALLY understand golf, you know that the game is won from behind the ball, not over it and not in front of it.

In 2009 Butch Harmon and Earl Woods were no longer part of Tigers professional life. Earl had passed on and Butch has been replaced by Hank Haney who had done a decent job of ‘rounding off’ Tigers golf swing. From a technical viewpoint, it’s worth noting that Tigers swing was at its best shortly after Hank took over; it was a beautiful synthesis between Haney’s belief in swing plane and the neutral clubface that Butch was so insistent on.

No longer were there any gatekeepers to Tigers brain. The padlocks were unlocked and with the gates fully open, he was now exposed to any of the en vogue trends and predatory gurus that frequently waft up and down tournament ranges.

A new trend had been on tour for a couple of years since the incredibly likeable Aaron Baddeley had won both the Verizon Heritage at Hilton Head in 2006 and the FBR Open the following year. Baddeley was known on the tour as an incredibly talented short game magician yet his long game he was always slightly mercurial. Using the Stack & Tilt teachers Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett, Baddeley was able to harness and shackle down a repeatable swing at the expense of physical injury. Dearly missed, Ramsey McMaster, the famed Scottish bio mechanic who lived in Australia, once showed me a spinal X-ray of the Napier of Baddeley’s neck shortly after resigning from the S&T cult; his neck looked like fish hook bending nastily to the left.

This trend was an offspring of Homer Kelly’s ‘The Golf Machine’ and then later Mac O’ Grady’s MORAD system. In both, a ‘Geometrical Utopia’ is promised to the user in which every inch and every power source is accounted for and fully understood. Both Plummer and Bennett rode the wave of their new found fame hard with appearances on The Charlie Rose Show and serialisation in magazines such as Golf Digest. The word on the street was Geometry, the evidence was Aaron Baddeley and the promise was 100% control through hitting all the right angles.

For Tiger, he was just about to learn the truth that if you keep your mind open long enough, people will throw all amounts of shit in it; and they did. With the gatekeepers of routine and execution now gone, Tiger’s essential ego mechanism, the ingredient all great sportsman have, started to reside and infatuate in a different location. It moved from the process of hitting great shots to an obsessive inquiry into how it all happens. This ladies and gentleman is where the first wheel of the car starts to wobble.

I can only imagine what Earl Woods or Butch Harmon would have said to Tiger when he started to become intrigued with the idea of mechanical perfection. But this is what happened. So, did he start to work with Bennett and Plummer? The answer is no for a few reasons which I will not elude to here. What he in fact did was to choose Sean Foley, a teacher who was fast gaining a stable of good players and spoke the language of science and geometry. In Tigers eyes, Bennett and Plummer were far too geeky to be associated with. Foley however was a fashionable accessory who seemed to know what he was talking about with players such as Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan.

The Innate – The Designed and The people in the Middle

Peak performance athletes are generally innately talented or have designed their way to greatness. We have to be honest in this assessment if only to appreciate where genius originates from – moving from left to right we see the three categories.

‘INNATE AND IGNORANT’

‘MIDDLE BAND’

‘INTELLIGENT BY DESIGN’

For the ‘innate and ignorant’ we have to look at an early Seve, a Bubba Watson, a John Daly, a Sandy Lyle, a Laura Davies and a Dustin Johnson. In all of these cases and more, you have professional sportsman who know how THEY work and what they need to FEEL with little or no depth to the understanding of how it all happens. This is a little like opening and closing your fist; you can make it happen but you don’t really know how. Their learning filters were generally experiential and often trial and error based at a young age. Their raison d’etre is as simple as ‘If I do This…….I know I’ll get That.’  

For the ‘intelligent by design’ we have to look at Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo mrk II, Padraig Harrington mrk II, Ben Hogan mrk II, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose. These golfers were first and foremost incredible students that hung on the words on their mentors and teachers. If for some reason they technically struggled, they only had to pull out the master plan they designed to see immediately what was going wrong. These golfers are organic business plans.

Lastly, we reach the poor bastards in the middle. This category of tour golfer is forever bouncing between the Bob Rotella philosophy of ‘just letting it go’ (this works for a short time when the player is getting too busy) or they are trying to design systems and processes that are somewhat guarantee-able and make sense. When you’re too mechanical you hit the ball well but don’t necessarily score since you have no pictures. When you let go of all technique, you initially play well but then the lack of discipline starts to creep in and you start playing outdoor bingo with the golf ball. 

This is a miserable cycle to be in. You simply don’t know whether to play golf dumb or to play golf smart since both will work for short periods of time before a return to the middle again. Is there a way to help this genre of tour player? Yes, there is.

Tiger Woods was unique in light of these three categories….why? Because he lived in the most beautiful parallel universe between the Innate & by Design – until 2009 Tiger Woods had never visited the Middle Band.

Conclusion

I am concluding this piece earlier than I’d like but I have to cut to the chase…..

As an amazing student, the young Tiger Woods allowed very clever people to sculpt his golf business plan making him intelligent by design. Earl Woods and Butch Harmon focused intensely on routines and execution knowing full well that unless those two essentials were in place even the best technique in the world would only be half realised.

As a teacher I can testify that up until the Haney / Foley crossover, Woods mainly focused on basic fundamentals like Jack Nicklaus did before him. There was no dissection and certainly no scrutiny into his technique. He had a framework that he himself fully understood and really didn’t mess with and in this regard, Woods knew of himself and his golf swing that if ‘He did this……he’d get that’.

Woods was 100% intelligent by design through his two clever and trusted mentors – He was also 100% innate; he’d hard wired this sacred information deep within his formative psyche.

Pandora’s Box

When you analyse something you normally have to kill it or unfortunately it gets killed in the process. At his most vulnerable, Woods became a swing junkie leaving behind everything he’d learnt as a junior. His ego was only an ally when it resonated with routine and execution; the moment its focus shifted to technique, he started to peer into places he shouldn’t.   

If there is ONE thing you cannot do with the ‘Innate and Ignorant’, it’s to allow them access to information they simply do not need to know. If this occurs, as it did with Seve, Lyle, Baker Finch, Daly and Woods you will open a Pandora’s Box located deep within the chambers of the brain which houses the answers to questions never asked before.

There is not a tour player alive who has not attempted to elevate their performance past their current reality. But the reality of Woods was that he was already close, if not at his full capacity as a functioning player. When you are at 100% or close to it, sometimes you have to accept you can’t force a melon out of a lemon. Knowing when you have it just about as good as you can is a unique state of awareness; in essence you are content and not chasing what Buddhists call Maya (illusion).

I am not confident that Woods will return to win repeatedly as there is much unlearning to do to get back to the place where everything flows easily. From this moment on he’ll always ask ‘why oh why can I not find that place where I was before?’ Though once again for Woods, all the answers lie in the past, not the future, for he has obviously forgotten the teachings of Lao Tzu, the Buddhist master who said:

‘One cannot reflect in streaming water’.

Tiger Woods is now in that nasty middle band.

Through analysis and working with analyst’s he now knows more about his weakness’s then he does his strengths and it was never this way.

Nick Bradley

Authors note 2019: Thank god we see Woods now talking about feels and learning to compete again. It’s really no surprise to see him back with his 2002 golf swing and his imagination firing. So much better than trying to pitch his spine at 45 degrees and being so far ahead of the ball at the top of his swing he could smell the hole. Lag, Drag and Steep were not Tigers friends…or his back. I smell a victory soon enough.   

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