Stroke of madness

ALMOST FROM THE BEGINNING he was doing it. At 10 months old, the story goes, Eldrick Woods climbed down from his high chair in the garage of his family's house in Cypress, Calif., grabbed hold of a child's plastic toy club and began precisely mimicking his father's golf swing, lefthanded -- a piece of legend given to us only by Earl Woods, since no one else was in the room at the time. Its plausibility is bolstered, however, by the fact that some five years earlier and 100 miles south in San Diego, a boy named Phil Mickelson had done exactly the same thing. Watching his father hit balls, Mickelson at 18 months had also copied his dad's swing, mirroring it lefthanded. Mickelson, a righty in every other way, would stick with that lefty swing, becoming the most accomplished southpaw in the sport's history, winning four majors and 40 PGA Tour events. Woods, though, was different.

After two weeks of swinging his plastic club lefthanded (this is, again, according to Earl), Tiger apparently grew dissatisfied with the motion. As the father looked on, his son waddled to the other side of the ball and -- in the part of the tale that always engaged Earl the most in the telling -- switched his hands, moving the right below the left, intuitively finding the proper grip. Earl called to his wife, Kultida, elsewhere in the house: "We have a genius on our hands!"

IN THE LEAD-UP to the 1994 U.S. Amateur, held at the TPC Sawgrass, The Oregonian newspaper reported: "Eldrick 'Tiger' Woods conquered all the worlds of junior golf, and then he did a curious thing. He changed his swing." He had started the process 13 months earlier, under his new coach Butch Harmon. The goal was to exorcise Woods' swing as a teenager -- a long, spidery, loose-limbed arc that, while powerful and at times brilliant, contained a host of extraneous movements. Already Woods had his sights set on the pro circuit. Already Jack Nicklaus' 18 major-championship trophies were his professed goal. In his precociousness, he was making the kind of change that certain players attempt only once they get their first taste of PGA Tour-level competition. They see how astoundingly good the world's best truly are -- how they strike the ball with such purity -- and decide they must seriously upgrade their swings. History has shown that most will come to regret that decision.

WITH ALL DUE respect to the 14 majors, 74 wins and historic victory margins, the greatest act of Woods' career, the constant and complete reinvention of his game, has been almost universally reviled. Other than the lurid soap opera of his private life, arguably nothing has brought Woods so much derision as his major swing changes. But now, nearly two decades after that Amateur in Florida, Woods appears to be on the verge of completing the unthinkable: disassembling, reconstructing and mastering his golf swing for the third time in his career. Not only has no other player ever attempted such a thing, no other player has ever conceived of it -- though perhaps a better way of putting it is: No other player would ever want to conceive of it.

We're not talking about the endless tweaks and minor revisions that all players, from touring pros to dedicated hacks, are forever visiting upon their swings. We are talking instead about the conscious decision to undergo a structural overhaul, wherein a player transforms the very shape and pattern of his swing via a tedious and labor-intensive process that carries with it all manner of psychic complications.

Long grooved into the frontal lobes of golf's conventional wisdom is the notion that every person has a "born," or "natural," swing. The standard analogies are of fingerprints or DNA or the Design of the Almighty. "Nothing works," says Curtis Strange, "like your God-given golf swing." Among gifted players who achieve low handicaps, this notion is especially powerful. So much so that in many circles, to meddle with your natural swing is to meddle with your soul -- to dive too deep and risk discovering things about yourself that maybe you'd rather not.

At age 19, David Gossett won the 1999 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. A year later, he carded a 59 during one of his rounds at the PGA Tour's Qualifying School. A year after that, in his rookie season, he won the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic. This success notwithstanding, he became convinced he needed to change his swing to become a world-class ball striker. He now has trouble breaking 80, and when he plays a competitive round at all, it's likely on the Hooters Tour. As he said to a reporter in 2009, "Chasing the almighty, elusive great swing is not real."

Craig Perks won the Players Championship in 2002 and then, unhappy with his ball striking, made "radical changes to be more consistent," according to quotes in 2007. He retired from the game later that same year.

Scott Verplank, who won a tour event while still an amateur, became convinced he needed to hit the ball higher to be successful at the uppermost level of the game. He changed his swing, lost his card and spent five years fighting the so-called driver yips -- whether its causes are psychological or physiological is debated -- that pros fear more than perhaps any other demon. Though he came back to fashion a modest career, with three tour wins since the '80s, Verplank, now 48, never fulfilled his early promise.

Swing changes have afflicted more than just young players craving upward mobility. They have brought down top-10 players and Hall of Fame-level champions. Four-time tour winner Chip Beck wanted to heighten the trajectory of his shots so he could hold the hard greens at the majors. David Duval, once the world's top-ranked golfer, tried to add a reliable draw to his repertoire of approach shots. Ian Baker-Finch wanted more distance off the tee. The great Seve Ballesteros sought the one-plane consistency promised by an obscure golfing tome. All underwent drastic swing changes. None ever won again. Three of the four (Duval, Baker-Finch, Ballesteros) came down with the dreaded driver yips. Beck left the tour to sell insurance.

"More players have ruined their careers striving to find the perfect golf swing than have gone on to become successful," says Jim Furyk, a player with perhaps the most unorthodox swing in the contemporary game -- an ungainly double-hitching loop that nonetheless moves with an unassailable rhythm and produces one of the most consistent ball flights in the history of the sport. His father remains his coach. They have never tried to change his swing.

June 1997, pro swing change No. 1. Tour events prior to change: 17. Wins: 5. Winning percentage: 29.4 percent. (Majors: 1. Wins: 1. Winning percentage: 100 percent.) World rank at time of swing change: 2.

IMAGINE, FOR A moment, Tiger Woods hitting balls in the summer of 1997 on the private driving range near his house in the golf-as-lifestyle residential development known as Isleworth, just outside Orlando. Not two months earlier, he had won the Masters, his first major, by a record 12 strokes, and he had just watched a videotape of that final round. It was then -- while sitting in the studios of the Golf Channel, whose offices were near his home and whose video archives he would often study -- that Woods, rather famously, decided that his swing was not good enough, not for his purposes, at least.

In that video of the Masters, where others saw otherworldly dominance, Woods saw only a flaw -- that he was relying on timing, that he could have a superior round only on those days when the movement of his arms was perfectly synced with the rotation of his hips. The lower body's twisting back and forth, that massing of energy and then its release, is the source of all good players' power. But Woods, one of the most athletic specimens to play the game, could snap his hips through his swing with a speed as yet unseen in the sport. He'd been using this whipping motion all his life. It had long been seared into his gray matter. Still, his arms had to keep up. When they didn't, they would, as he termed it, get "stuck" behind him, coming through late, the clubface open, blasting the ball away in great curving vectors to the right. Woods was also blessed, or cursed, with what is called kinesthetic sense -- a body awareness so heightened, in his case, to also be called genius. Thus he could sense when his clubhead was out of position, even at speeds of 130 mph, and adjust his hands to compensate. But he could also overcompensate, yanking his arms hard enough to overtake his hips, shutting the clubface at impact, imparting dramatic right-to-left spin, sending the ball zinging out some 200 yards before dive-bombing to the left at blazing speed, caroming into trees or adjacent fairways or the skulls of unsuspecting gallery members. The only way to avoid the hooks or the blocks was to have days of great timing -- flipping the hands at precisely the right moment, like a man throwing a quarter through the window of a moving train. Woods had the talent to experience whole weeks of great timing -- flipping coin after coin through the train windows -- as happened at Augusta. Unlikely, however, even for Woods, was to have whole seasons of great timing.

Harmon too had studied the tape and had arrived at a series of modifications that would add up to a remedy. He counseled caution: "It's not going to be easy for you to make this change and still play through it." Woods said, "I don't care." Against Harmon's wishes, Woods insisted on installing everything all at once ... We'll do the whole recipe now. Start with the grip; weaken it, rotate hands to left. Adjust the takeaway, the shape of the move: Shorten it, setting the hands at the top in a position that will put the clubface squarer to the target. Less sidespin, less backspin. More control. Simpler. Tighter. Repeatable. A machine hardwired to make the same move again and again. A swing that won't get stuck.

"We tore it all apart and built it up," Woods would later say.

He had his predecessors. Others had succeeded in rebuilding their swings and come back to play championship golf. But they were an exceedingly rare species. The most famous example, Nick Faldo, who replaced the upright lash of his youth with a flatter, almost robotic strike under the tutelage of David Leadbetter in the mid-1980s, played very little competitive golf for more than a year as he went through the arduous renovation process. Because Woods didn't uncritically trust every recommendation from Harmon -- his own prodigious knowledge of the swing, according to Harmon, allowed Woods to diagnose the problems of other players with ease -- he wanted to test these new moves as soon as possible in competitive rounds. That was the Woods way. He would use the PGA Tour as a proving ground. It would require methodical work, the unlearning and relearning of muscle memory he'd spent his life acquiring. That might have been the point.

AMONG THE SCORES of clichés golf has spawned is the classic, attributed to Nicklaus, that the game is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental. But this tidy truism hardly comes close to describing golf's savage cognitive dissonances, of which the swing change is the ultimate. A psychologist would say that a swing change, whether a simple grip adjustment or a massive shift in the backswing, is a process of habit development and habit suppression. Golf psychologist Gio Valiante likens the latter to going to AA: 20 years after quitting, recovering alcoholics know the merest swig could trigger their old ways. A biomechanics Ph.D. would say that a swing change means adjusting your motor program. A neurologist would say it involves the wrapping, or thickening, of something called myelin -- a fat compound that insulates neural pathways in the brain. "Muscle memory" is the colloquialism for all these things. The ultimate goal is to make the new swing as automatic an act as possible. "Advanced performers are unconsciously competent," says Bob Rotella, psychologist to many golf greats. "But any time you make a change, you kind of go back to being a beginner." In the midst of a swing change, a player's arousal levels are high: The brain is busy. Only when those levels are calmed -- and the player finds that he's swinging freely without pondering the positions of his body parts -- is the change said to have clicked.

But this, of course, is heinously elusive. Swing change or not, the thinking is always there in golf. The ball is stationary; the mind has ample time to consider such things as the many flaws in one's swing. Even great players must, at some point, make a leap of faith. They must believe. This is never more important than amid a swing reconstruction. "Because if you start doubting what you're doing, holy cow!" says Valiante. "That's probably what sends a lot of guys off the tour. All of a sudden they're playing with no confidence, and that's when you have an almost unfixable mess." The worst-case scenario: a partially ingrained bunch of new swing habits layered over the old ones.

IT WOULD BE almost two years after embarking on his swing change with Harmon, in May 1999, that Woods would call the coach from the range before the GTE Byron Nelson: "Butchie, I got it." Over the course of that season, he would win eight PGA Tour events. He would win nine more the next season, including a 15-stroke victory at the U.S. Open, the first of four straight major wins. He would, over a span of seven years, make 142 consecutive cuts, perhaps the most unbreakable record in golf. He would win four straight money titles. Five consecutive scoring titles. Harmon, at the time, would say of Tiger in the book Raising the Bar, "The mechanics have gotten so good. His set-up posture is perfect, the plane of his swing is perfect ... Everything about it is textbook. Some players get in a zone, play good for a while, but they never swing like Tiger's swinging now." When asked what, if anything, Woods might change, Harmon would reply, "The only thing I'd change right now if I were Tiger is the route I took to the bank."

HE HAS SAID that he does not sleep for more than two or three hours a night. A typical workday starts every morning at 6:30 and extends more than 12 hours -- through three workouts, two range sessions, two practices on the putting green, one short-game session and two nine-hole practice rounds -- until it ends for dinner at 7. Day after day after day. So intense is his focus that he routinely experiences self-described blackout moments on the course; he cannot recall actually hitting many of the shots that everyone else remembers him hitting, regaining consciousness only as his back finishes its rotation and as his hands come to rest just above his left ear, the ball rising into the distance. To put his crying newborn daughter to sleep in the middle of the night, he did not simply rock her while watching TV; he has described carrying the infant to the gym in his house, situating himself on the leg press machine with her on his lap and doing 600 repetitions until she had fallen asleep. His only documented outdoor pastimes other than golf are spearfishing and free diving (swimming at great depths in the ocean without the benefit of an oxygen tank). Nothing about his life is halfway: not just the lifting and cardio sessions pursued by any world-class athlete, but commando training sessions with the Navy SEALs. Not a dalliance here or there but whole harems at his command.

Ah, command. In 2005 Woods told Golf Digest, "Only two players have ever truly owned their swings: Moe Norman and Ben Hogan. I want to own mine." Norman was a Canadian golf pro with a swing so automatic that he has entered lore. He is said to have never mishit a ball. He was also a self-described autistic. Hogan, winner of nine majors, was 9 when his father committed suicide at their home. In adulthood he was an introverted obsessive-compulsive who turned his dark, burning mind toward an all-consuming effort to perfect his golf stroke.

Golf, as it turns out, can be something like a panacea for those with troubled minds, allowing them to exert control over at least a portion of their lives, through one soothingly repeatable act. "Hogan perceived the constant practice as his spiritual routine, a way to close out the world and hone his perfection," says Hogan biographer James Dodson. "It's what made him happiest."

March 2004, swing change No. 2. Tour events since prior change: 132. Wins: 35. Winning percentage: 26.5 percent. (Majors: 27. Wins: 7. Winning percentage: 25.9 percent.) World rank at time of change: 1.

THERE WILL ALWAYS be those who will question -- vociferously and with bafflement -- why Woods ever changed the swing he grooved under Harmon. "I really don't know the reason," says former world No. 1 Greg Norman. "I thought the way he swung in 2000 was the purest I've ever seen him swing the golf club." Theories abound as to why Woods chose to ditch Harmon and then, after a period on his own, overhaul his swing for the second time in his pro career, this time under a longtime golf instructor named Hank Haney. Woods at times has hinted that injuries to his left knee forced him to abandon the Harmon swing. On the follow-through of his driver swing under Harmon, Woods would occasionally snap his left knee erect to gain leverage and produce additional clubhead speed. (Many in golf doubt that the Harmon swing could have caused this kind of knee problem.) According to John Anselmo, Woods' adolescent and teenage golf instructor, the injury came during Woods' first win on the PGA Tour, at the Las Vegas Invitational in 1996. Regardless, over the years these injury problems have given Woods a ready-made reason for changing his swing: If he wants to keep playing at all, Woods says, he needs to rebuild his swing around his injuries.

No doubt, there's a degree of truth to that. But it's clearly not the whole story. The term "perfectionist," although dulled by popular usage, is in fact a clinical one. It can be both highly motivational and a dark force; depression, anxiety, addiction and OCD are risk factors for people who exhibit perfectionist traits. And those displayed by Woods are legion. As Harmon said of Woods in 2000, just prior to the Tiger Slam, "He's never happy ... He's such a perfectionist, so much so that I've stopped bringing my video camera to the tournaments, because he wants to look at it and nitpick everything." Woods' victory celebrations have reportedly been few and brief. As Haney has written, "In his mind, satisfaction is the enemy of success. His whole approach was to delay gratification and somehow stay hungry." Woods may well have invented that sporting bromide about always striving to get better. But behind that cliché is a deeper truth: "Extreme perfectionism is distinguished by never being satisfied," says Gordon Flett, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto who has researched perfectionism in athletics. "Even when they get to the peak, there's always something for perfectionists to keep working on, always some other way for them to come at it. They're always thinking about their mistakes or ways to get better. If they can't stop thinking about these things, that's when it becomes an obsession."

It has been well documented that Woods' golfing mind requires constant stimulation, engaged only when there is something to work on, some mountain to climb. Many touring pros talk about "maintenance," about achieving a swing that needs only to be fine-tuned. Players like Davis Love III and Fred Couples have gone their entire careers basically in maintenance mode; Woods would be pathologically bored by this. Haney has speculated that Woods left Harmon because Harmon urged his pupil to maintain. "But such an approach went against Tiger's grain," Haney wrote in The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods, a book that reportedly miffed Woods to no end for its public airing of his psychological peccadilloes. "He wanted to always be consciously doing something to get better. It was as if he needed the stimulation and the challenge to stay motivated. It was a compulsion."

Says Flett: "We have the axiom that nobody's perfect. Well, in extreme cases of perfectionism, it's like that doesn't matter. They say, 'Yeah, sure, nobody's perfect. But I'm going to be the first.'"

THUS DID TIGER WOODS throw his lot in with Hank Haney, a man whose theories of the swing were bequeathed by Jim Hardy, whose theories of the swing were bequeathed by Ben Hogan. Haney had helped Woods' good friend, neighbor and mentor Mark O'Meara rebuild his swing following O'Meara's rookie season -- perhaps one of the most successful overhauls in the history of the game. And it was Haney who would teach Woods a new swing, a swing that, ostensibly, once and for all, would eradicate that most hateful liability: getting stuck. Woods played often with O'Meara at Isleworth. He saw that the man never seemed to miss a fairway -- straightest driver of the ball in his day. It drove Woods nuts. If he could only drive like O'Meara and do everything else like himself, he'd never lose. To get there, he was willing to rethink every notion he had of the golf swing.

I'll get to work: Adopt a one-plane swing, like Hogan's. Flatter. Rounder. Laid-off at the top. Weaken the grip? Hell, I'll move the club to the palm, eliminate the fingers -- a radical change necessitating other radical changes. It'll take tens of thousands of balls on the range to ingrain it, trade another two years for perfection.

IN 1954, BACK when Life magazine was the most important periodical in the world, it published an article titled, simply, "Ben Hogan's Secret." According to the story, Hogan had incorporated a mysterious movement into his swing to transform himself from a journeyman into a multiple-major champion -- winning the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in 1953, the only player ever to do so in the same season. From that moment on, the secret took on a life of its own. Even after Hogan claimed to have revealed the secret in a follow-up article just one year later -- a highly unorthodox cupped wrist at the top of his swing that he said prevented hooks and generated a controlled fade -- some said Hogan held back on the truth. Today, most believe that Hogan sold Life a bill of goods. Dodson notes that the magazine paid Hogan $50,000 to participate in the article, the equivalent of some $400,000 today. "Hogan told lies," Dodson says. "And he said it himself: The secret is in the dirt. That's why he hit balls 'til his hands bled." Regardless, during Tiger's time with Haney, some claim to have seen Woods cupping his left wrist at the top of his backswing when attempting to play a fade.

The mystique of Hogan's secret has persisted probably because the game of golf, in all its confounding dimensions, is prone to the flowering of cults -- whole schools of swing theory that promise a cure, the one technique or tip or system that will allow a player, almost magically, to master the art of hitting a golf ball. But no swing cult has had more influence over the modern game than the one that has bloomed around a strange and gnomic instructional text called The Golfing Machine. Written by a former Boeing engineer and high handicapper named Homer Kelley and first published in 1969, the book is more like a technical manual, based on precepts of mechanical engineering. There are those who have spent their lives studying it. An academy exists in Oregon that certifies instructors in the intricacies of Kelley's teachings.

Another of Kelley's acolytes was Mac O'Grady, then a PGA Tour player who sought out Kelley at his home in Seattle to learn his secrets. O'Grady has a reputation to this day as one of the modern game's great ball strikers -- and great eccentrics. He played righthanded but is said to have been ambidextrous. "He'll play you for any amount of money lefthanded," says Mike Bender, a golf instructor who once studied under O'Grady. Some claim he knows more about the golf swing than anyone else alive. A reclusive figure, he is difficult to find today. He may reside in Palm Springs, Calif. Still, O'Grady is the trunk from which has grown a kind of coaching tree, having tutored a number of swing instructors who work with tour players, including Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett. Those are the two founders of a method they called Stack & Tilt, which they began to promote in the middle of the last decade. And at about the time that Woods and Haney split (Haney wrote in his book that his decision to leave was hastened by Woods' growing disinterest in the coach's tutelage), a rumor spread around the tour: that the greatest player in the world had sought out O'Grady for help. If true, it would have been like Mariano Rivera seeking pitching advice from Mitch Williams.

August 2010, swing change No. 3. Tour events since prior change: 91. Won: 31. Winning percentage: 34.1 percent. (Majors: 23. Wins: 6. Winning percentage: 26.1 percent.) World rank at time of change: 1.

INSTEAD, IN 2010, Woods named Sean Foley as his new coach and commenced another swing overhaul. In the wake of Haney's departure, Woods had played by far the worst golf of his career. He was seen skying his 3-wood off the tee. He was seen hitting fat two inches behind the ball. And his swing would still get stuck. Many believed Woods was adrift and searching -- and that in hiring Foley he had thrown his luck in with a version of Stack & Tilt. To some in the golf instructional world, the method is an example of yet another zany swing cult, a fad that counsels, in simple terms, staying centered over the ball through the backswing, keeping one's weight on the left side of the body, stacking it there and then finishing the follow-through with an upward tilt in the shoulders. Rather than the twisting of a traditional golf swing, it is a piston action down into the ball. It is, in that way, as radical a departure from the past 150 years of golf as exists today. To Woods, these ideas might well have represented something else. Can't get your weight stuck behind you if it never gets behind you.

A Canadian instructor about the same age as his newest pupil, Foley has the demeanor of the amiable philosophy major who stays up late at night in the dorm room discussing mind-blowing subjects. He enjoys debunking pre-conceived notions. He is apt to call you "bro." He surrounds himself with Ph.D.s in biomechanics and motor learning. And like many in the newer generation of swing coaches, he is an avid user of TrackMan, a radar system introduced 10 years ago that measures the golf swing and what occurs at impact. It spews out data: clubhead speeds, attack angles, launch angles, trajectories. The more zealotic of TrackMan's advocates view golf instruction prior to the system as a pre-Copernican world of sophistry and superstition. Foley, to a degree, is one of them. "What I'm doing with TrackMan is looking at the direction in which the sweet spot is moving through the golf ball," Foley says. "And it's telling the truth to, like, 99 percent of measured efficiency."

It's clear that Woods, in his fervor for swing analysis and theory, is fascinated by all this. In news conferences at which he would once discuss shots "fitting my eye," he now talks about his "numbers." By this he means the spin rates and degrees of angle that his swing is producing at any given moment. "If you'd have asked me last year at this time, I wouldn't have known it -- not all of it," Woods said of his TrackMan numbers in 2011, a year after hiring Foley. "But now, understanding all those numbers, what they relate to in ball flight, traj, spin -- that's what's fun." ("Traj" is a Tigerism for trajectory.) "It's kind of neat to talk numbers like that because most people probably don't really get it."

Tiger Woods had a new mountain to climb.

SURELY YOU HAVE seen the clip, the one from 1978. The one where he's almost 3 years old and a guest on the nationally syndicated daytime talk program The Mike Douglas Show. It is some of the earliest footage of Tiger Woods' earliest swing, a Zapruder film for golfing nerds. You might remember that Tiger carried a golf bag homemade by his mother as he bounded with a broad smile across the stage toward the other guests. You might remember that those other guests were Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope. Also onstage were an artificial turf mat and a teed-up golf ball. You might also remember that when Tiger makes his lash at the ball, the strike is pure. On the clip there is an audible pop. You then hear Stewart's telltale high-pitched stuttering laugh -- he's clearly dumbfounded by this display of raw talent -- while the crowd cheers and whoops.

What you might not recall is the club. It is a sawed-off adult 3-wood with a stiff steel shaft, a standard-size persimmon-wood head and what appears to be a grip of adult gauge. The club would have likely weighed about 300 grams, not much less than an adult male's driver today. And it's only in rewinding this tape that you see that this foreshortened club, made by Earl, is clearly too heavy for the boy. So heavy that when he makes his backswing, the club goes far past parallel; for an instant, you think he might drop it. From that point, in order to get this ponderous thing square to the ball, the boy must uncork his hips with all the might available in his toddler body. And then he must whip his hands, also as hard as he can, so they'll catch up with his hips. Which they do. Pop. The ball launches into the net in the shadows of the stage's backdrop. Cheers erupt from the crowd. And when you rewind the clip and watch it again, and again, the moment reveals itself: Tiger Woods, at 2 years and 10 months, is making the very same move, containing the very same flaw, that the man version of this boy will spend his entire career striving to erase. Only a person with world-class coordination and kinesthetic sense could possibly swing a club like that as a toddler. The flaw, in other words, was grooved by his own talent.

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