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Deconstructing Tiger Woods' Approach to Golf

PGA Tour Players Talk Anonymously About Tiger Woods

Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel shares his thoughts about Tiger Woods' unprecedented approach to the game of golf. 

It is a curious fact that, a hundred years from now, when golfers are discussing Tiger Woods the way we discuss Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaustoday, they will have to talk about Tiger's swing by the year or vintage, the way one talks about great wines. Or perhaps the way we talk of ancient history using the preposition "circa" before the date. Because the Tiger Woods of 1997 was vastly different in form from the Tiger Woods of 2000, and different yet again in 2007, and different still today in 2014. Among his mind-blowing accomplishments, ascending to the number one spot in the world and dominating the world of professional golf with four completely different swings might be the most “in your face" feat ever achieved in sport.

Tiger may have been born to play golf, but it seems he was also born to build and destroy.

Michael Jordan worked harder than his peers to improve his form, but the mechanics he used to score over 3,000 points in the 1986-87 season looked essentially identical to those he used to hit a jumper with 5.2 seconds left to clinch the NBA Championship for the Bulls against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Gordie Howe played professional hockey in five different decades, and in his 2,421st game, his style was just as recognizable as it was in his rookie season of 1946. Imagine if either of these athletes, after being colossally successful early in their careers, had completely changed the way they played their respective sports — not once, but four times, and after each change became the best again. It would just never happen, not once, let alone four times.

Young athletes, new to their sport, make changes to their form as they learn what works and what doesn't based upon coaching and trial and  error, but once they have the mechanics down, their form, with few exceptions, is as recognizable as a fingerprint for the rest of their careers. Don’t get me wrong — athletes, especially golfers, are always tinkering, but once a modicum of success has been achieved, changes for the most part amount to refinements.

Exceptions, of course, are players who failed early in their careers and then went back and dismantled and rebuilt swings, only to come back famously different golfers, like Ben Hogan in the 1940s and, most recently and less famously, Matt Kuchar. None of this happened to Tiger Woods, who exploded onto the scene in 1996 and won The Masters by 12 shots in 1997 only to completely scrap that record-breaking swing. What he came back with two years later was the best swing in the history of golf.

Build and destroy.

In 2000 Tiger started history's most dominant, astonishing stretch of golf with a longer, wider, spot-on plane and more versatile swing. He won four professional majors in a row by as much as 15 shots and made 142 consecutive cuts. What is the purpose of pursuing a method in sport, except in hopes of becoming the best, the most consistent and the most dominating athlete of your era, if not of all time? Tiger did just that, and then, as if he was tired of driving a two-year-old car, he traded it in for a newer model.

Build and destroy.

By 2007, Tiger’s swing, flatter and narrower, looked nothing like his swing that won four majors  in a row, but his scoring average of 67.79 was exactly the same as his scoring average of 2000, and so was his dominance, if not his ability to win by blowout margins.

Build and destroy.

As Tiger has aged and his body has grown, his swing has flattened (and his major championship win total has flatlined).

In 2013 Tiger won five times (no one else won more than twice on Tour) and became the No. 1 player in the world again by a wide margin — and the swing he uses today is completely unrecognizable compared to the swings he’s used in the past, which makes one think that Tiger could take any method, tie one hand behind his back and tattoo Nike on everyone’s forehead with the other while continuing to win. Clearly, it’s not the method he uses but perhaps the belief in that method that matters most. Or perhaps it’s just that he goes to a place mentally that no one else can grasp. Perhaps he’s always there. Either way, at 38 years old, Tiger has not only done things in golf no one has ever done or will ever do, but he’s also done things in golf no one has ever even thought to do.

Like Shakespeare, who created anew almost 2,000 words when other writers struggled even to use that many, Tiger is the most singular figure golf has ever known.

Still, it has been almost six years since he won a major, and that is the one thing he hasn’t done with his new swing and it is the one thing that matters most. At 38 years old, the man whose record Tiger is chasing, Jack Nicklaus, had won 14 majors, and in his 38th year he added an Open Championship at St. Andrews, a place where he had won before. Tiger is playing at three major venues this year where he has previously won, and there is every reason to think 2014 will be the year in which Tiger starts his major ascendancy again. The swing changes are done, and he’s too old to change again; all that’s left is to compete.

Build and destroy.

-Brandel Chamblee
Golf Channel Analyst


This article appears in the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports' Golf Annual, on newsstands now. Order your copy today.