Swing coach probably can't fix Tiger Woods's problems

David Leadbetter with star pupil Michelle Wie in 2006. Even the famed swing guru concedes:
David Leadbetter with star pupil Michelle Wie in 2006. Even the famed swing guru concedes: "Ultimately, we get too much attention." (Mike Derer/associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Sally Jenkins
Monday, June 14, 2010

Everyone has a swing tip for Tiger Woods. Nick Faldo says he is "stuck." Lee Trevino says, "He needs to call me." Frame it on a wall or sew it on to a cushion, because Woods isn't listening to anyone but himself.

Woods is practicing for this week's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach without a swing coach, and his decision to go solo is an interesting one, given that he's never hit the ball worse off the tee, and his pursuit of the major championship record is suddenly in doubt. At a time when he would seem most in need of help, he has decided to rely on his own feel rather than an outside eye. Whatever happens in the Open, Woods will get all of the credit or the blame, and we won't have Hank Haney to kick around any more.

What can, or can't, a guru do for a great player? Woods's attempt to fix himself is a sign of what he thinks of swing architects, those ubiquitous shadow figures who stand behind so many of today's top players, and to whose clinics so many laymen flock. If Woods manages to right his game in the Open, it will suggest that their role is overstated. If he struggles, it will suggest that we're too quick to blame coaches for the problems of stubborn, self-willed champions.

"Ultimately, we get too much attention," says David Leadbetter, who coaches Ernie Els and Michelle Wie.

The job of swing coach is really a modern invention. It was Leadbetter who spawned the industry in the mid-1980s, when he used his successful collaboration with Faldo to build an academy and corporate empire. Suddenly every pro had a swing coach for a traveling companion, and now every swing coach has a clinic and Web site. In the old days Bobby Jones might chat with Stewart Maiden or Jack Nicklaus occasionally checked in with Jack Grout, but for the most part they did what Ben Hogan did, they looked for their game in the dirt.

"We made it more fashionable," Leadbetter says. "Players are not as reliant on themselves as they were in the past."

The new dependence on coaches is attributable to paycheck pressure, Leadbetter believes. Purses have become so large that just one or two strokes over 72 holes can mean a huge difference in prize money. Players therefore want a mechanistic approach, and "less experimentation and trial and error," Leadbetter says.

Phil Mickelson uses not one but three coaches: Harmon for his swing, Dave Pelz for his short game, and Dave Stockton for his putting. "So who does he give the credit to?" Leadbetter asks. He also has a fitness coach.

Woods, like most of modern players, has had a coach by his side since childhood, starting with his late father Earl. He won eight majors in his 20s using the torque action tooled by Butch Harmon, and six more with Haney, who gave him a more rotational movement in the name of consistency, and to take pressure off his bad left knee.

But someone once said, "Advice is what we ask for when we know the answer but wish we didn't." Woods knows he has a major issue with control, and he doesn't need anyone to tell him that -- although everyone has. In four tournaments this season he's hit just 54.4 percent of his fairways, 163rd on the PGA Tour. At Quail Hollow he found just 6 of 28 fairways and missed the cut with the worst 36-hole score of his career. In the Players Championship, he hit a 3-wood that went just 190 yards. At Memorial, he tied for 19th, three times striking spectators with errant balls in the final round.

At each stop, experts issued a stream of analysis. "He needs a new, fresh teacher and just go back to what got him there," Johnny Miller said during the Players. Roger Maltbie chimed in, "He's got too many fires to put out right now, he's playing his golf swing, he's not playing the game." Trevino told Golf Magazine, "he's too wristy for a big guy." He opined, "Tiger can't keep his hips, hands and shoulders working together."

The common theme was that Woods needed to abandon Haney. But as it turned out, Haney already had quit. Unbeknown to the armchair coaches, Haney left the Players before it started, and parted with Woods via text message.

Who is really most responsible for Woods hitting it sideways? We can pick apart Harmon's technique vs. Haney's, or the virtues of upright vs. flat, and try to divine meaning from the fact that Woods hit 70 percent of his fairways with Harmon, to 60 percent with Haney. But surely Woods's horrendous recent play is simply the toll of his sex scandal, long layoff, and treatment for addiction. The problem is likely in his head, and not his swing. How is a coach supposed to fix that?

What exactly is the job definition of swing coach anyway? The duties can include confessor, counselor, and company keeper. Sometimes Leadbetter felt he was just along so Faldo, a loner, would have someone to talk to. Part of the job is reading the player. "In the end they go through certain mood swings, and have wants and needs at different times in their career," Leadbetter says.

Sometimes it's the role of a swing coach simply to be a convenient scapegoat. Els left Leadbetter for a time to go to Harmon, only to return when he found the grass wasn't greener. "I've been fired and rehired many times by some of greatest players in world and not so great," Leadbetter says. "It's a bit like a marriage. When things aren't going well, they can blame their caddie, their family life, their agent, and the coach is definitely in the firing line, too."

Even his 13-year relationship with Faldo eventually ran its course. "For the most part there's a normal shelf life, or the magic runs out, and they need something said to them in a slightly different way, because the same thing doesn't register," Leadbetter says.

As for Woods, he doesn't seem to want to hear anything at all right now. Maybe what he needs is a little silence, relief from everyone else's opinion, while he looks for his game in the dirt. "He's the sort of player that because of his talent level and his mind-set for golf, that if he really believes in what he is doing strongly enough, he can make anything work," Leadbetter says. "That's the truth."

What all great players share is the belief that no one knows more about the game than they do. "It's no coincidence that Jack Nicklaus wrote a book called 'Golf My Way,' " Leadbetter points out.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company