Tiger Woods is arguably the most famous golfer of all time. He moves the needle like nobody else. He burst on the to scene in 1996 with his “Hello World” campaign, and started racking up the wins soon after. He won the 1997 Masters tournament by a whopping 12 strokes over runner-up Tom Kite. It was golf unlike any we had witnessed before, which lead Colin Montgomerie to make his famous statement after the third round, “There is no chance humanly possible that Tiger Woods is going to lose this tournament”.
The only thing more surprising than his runaway victory at Augusta, was his decision to change his swing after the tournament was over. Everyone from TV analysts to his own coach, Butch Harmon, thought he was crazy. Tiger wrote in his book How I Play Golf “I watched video of the entire tournament a few weeks after the event, to see if there were some things in my full swing I could work on. I didn’t see one flaw, I saw about 10”.
The biggest issue in what he saw on the video was his club being across the line, and his club face being too closed. These two issues would often pair up to create some scary misses. Tiger and Butch received a barrage of criticism for changing the swing that had just destroyed the field at The Masters, but they both knew that to play at the level Tiger wanted, the change was absolutely necessary.
The time frame it took Tiger to complete this work is the most impressive and misunderstood aspect of this topic. He set about this journey in late April of 1997, and it was on May 13, 1999 that he shot 61 in the opening round of the Byron Nelson Classic. After the round, he phoned Butch and said “I got it!”, meaning that the changes finally felt natural. It took the greatest player in the world a full two years to feel as though he finally mastered what he had been working on.
He made various changes over the years with coaches Hank Haney, Sean Foley, and finally with Chris Como, always trying to improve. Each coach brought with them a detailed analysis of his game, and a plan for how to correct the errors. Tiger brought an unparalleled work ethic and an understanding of how to make the changes stick. The common thread between all of these changes, is that they were being performed with a desired shot shape in mind.
I hear every day on the lesson tee from players who can’t break 100, “I don’t want to make any big changes to my swing, I just want to be more consistent”. When starting a lesson with a new student, I ask them what they have been working on, and I get a laundry list of answers; “I’m strengthening my grip”, “I’m trying to smooth out my tempo”, and “I really want to load up in to my right side”. Regardless of the answer I get, I always ask “why?”. If you can’t identify why you are making that change, then you probably shouldn’t be making it at all.
When examining a golf swing, the aesthetic qualities come second to the functionality of it. The function of the golf swing is to make solid contact, hit the ball a predetermined distance, and to control the start direction and curve to hit your target. If a golfer can perform all 3 fundamentals with all of the clubs in their bag, then they are on the way to playing great golf. Every lesson I have ever taught has been to improve one of the three fundamentals, never to improve the aesthetic.
When deciding if YOU need to make a change, it is important to perform some tests to determine how your skills measure up.
To test your contact, it is as simple as painting a line on the ground. Place a ball on the line, and take a swing. Your divot should come after the painted line, not behind it. Missing the ground altogether is also an indication of a contact issue. Repeat that process 10 times, and look at the end result. All of your divots should come after the line as in the picture below. If they don’t, you need to make a change to improve your contact.
To test your distance, hit 10 drives down a fairway at your course, and take the median (shown with the orange stick in the picture below). It is very important not to take the average of the 10 drives, as one extraordinarily bad shot (or good shot) can skew the average. When deciding if you need to add distance, it can be a two-sided conversation. In some cases, a player could just move forward a tee box, or change the equipment they are using. The other side of the equation is making technical changes to add distance. Too many golfers fall for the idea that a workout program will help find you those 20 yards you are looking for. In this scenario, you will just be hitting it longer with the same poor technique you had before.
Lastly, to test your ability to control the curve of the ball, set a grid on the range and give yourself some guidelines. If you are trying to hit a draw, every ball must start between the ropes on the ground (see picture below), every ball must curve to the left, and no ball can curve past the target line (left rope). Run this test with ten balls with your 6-iron and ten balls with your driver. If you can successfully keep 8 out of 10 attempts inside the grid, you are controlling the curve.
It is very important to work in that order of skills, as one is more important than the next. For example, it doesn’t matter if you can hit it really far, if you struggle to make solid contact. Start with the contact, add distance, and then learn how to control the curve. This progression should be the framework for each practice session.
Working with a knowledgeable coach will make this process a more productive one. The key is going in to the lesson with an identifiable issue you want to address, and why it needs to be improved. Rather than going to the lesson and saying “I want to be more consistent”, you will be able to say “I make consistent contact, I hit the ball far enough, but I am struggling to control the amount my ball draws”.
Being able to quantify your skill level removes all guesswork and emotion from the equation. It also gives you benchmarks to test yourself against as you improve the different areas of your game. In the end, we all have a limited amount of time to spend improving our games, improving what actually matters will make all the difference.