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The Swing Shift

Two high-profile gurus question Woods' worth off the tee

June 03, 2004|Joel Greenberg | Times Staff Writer

Tiger Woods' golf swing -- revered for years as a work of perfection in a notoriously imperfect sport -- is caught in an identity crisis that has his critics and defenders pointing fingers and trading insults over the suddenly human world's No. 1 player.

In the "What's wrong with Tiger?" controversy, two high-profile swing gurus -- including Woods' former coach Butch Harmon -- contend that his swing has deteriorated under the influence of best friend and fellow touring pro Mark O'Meara and one of O'Meara's coaches. Woods and O'Meara have denied that contention.

For months, the sight of Woods spraying drives 30 yards to the right of the intended fairway, or hooking the ball left, into the trees, has been dismissed by many -- including Woods himself -- as part of the capriciousness of the game.

But as the U.S. Open approaches, Woods' swing has come under intense scrutiny, particularly after a string of tournaments in which his drives have missed their mark the vast majority of the time -- seemingly costing him at least two victories.

The analysis reached a crescendo when Florida-based teaching professional Jim McLean wrote in Golf World magazine in April what many had been thinking for some time: "Tiger's golf swing has changed, and not for the better."

Moreover, McLean places much of the responsibility for the problem with O'Meara and Texas teaching pro Hank Haney, who has coached O'Meara.

"I agree with what Jim said" in the Golf World article, Harmon told The Times last week.

"Tiger should get his old film out and take a look at [his swing] and get back to those type of motions," Harmon said. "He would see how different his swing is now, and what a lack of control he has."

Until now, Harmon had been reluctant to discuss Woods since the two parted ways professionally nearly two years ago.

The article and its aftermath have injected the air of a soap opera into the genteel, hushed world of golf, where anger is almost always directed at oneself and aggression only at the ball.

At the center of the storm is the 28-year-old Woods, one of the most recognizable figures in sports and winner of eight major championships and 53 professional tournaments since turning pro in late 1996. Still ranked No. 1 in the world, Woods has shrugged off questions about his swing, saying it's "very close" to where he wants it to be.

Critics say statistics suggest otherwise. This year, Woods has driven the ball onto the fairway just 56.4% of the time, ranking him 161st on the PGA Tour. He has won just once so far this year -- the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. In 2000, he hit 71.2% of the fairways, for a ranking of 54th, and won 10 events, including three major championships.

McLean said he felt compelled to write the critique of Woods' swing after reading "a very negative comment" in Sports Illustrated that Haney made about Harmon, who has been credited with much of Woods' success.

Sports Illustrated "did a poll on whether Tiger should come back to me for help" with his swing, Harmon said. Haney's answer to that question in the magazine was, "No way, Jose."

"I thought that was very unprofessional," Harmon said.

McLean's reaction is more pointed. "I don't want to get into criticizing another tour player or another teacher," he said. "But

The reason Woods' swing -- specifically with his driver -- is off, McLean said, is because he has adopted O'Meara's swing pattern, which promotes a right-to-left "draw" on the ball.

"I've known Mark a long time," McLean said. "He's a friend, a good guy and very successful. [But] O'Meara doesn't hit the ball like Tiger does, not as far or as straight, not in his dreams."

Woods has conceded that he listens to ideas on the golf swing from O'Meara -- a two-time major champion -- Haney and other players and teachers. But both golfers have disputed the assertion that O'Meara and Haney have an undue influence on Woods' current swing.

"Just like Tiger said, we're friends," Haney said. "I'm not teaching him."

Woods could not be reached for comment. "There's no need for ... Tiger to respond to what you're writing," said Mark Steinberg, his agent at the IMG management company.

McLean is one of a group of internationally known teachers who coach the game's best players. His clients include Brad Faxon, Gary Player, Hal Sutton, Tom Kite, Sergio Garcia, Curtis Strange, Ben Crenshaw, Peter Jacobsen, Barnhard Langer, Steve Elkington and, McLean says, O'Meara himself.

It is not uncommon for a player to seek help from different coaches at different times in his or her career. Woods latest swing problems have prompted numerous observers to question why he doesn't revisit Harmon, the man who helped propel him to the pinnacle in 2000-01, when he held all four major championships -- the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and the PGA Championship.

Harmon said he and Woods have not talked, adding: "I don't plan on talking to him."

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