Can Tiger make the changes that will get him off of his injury-laden merry-go-round to nowhere?
Over the next few months, Tiger must take a long, hard look at remaking himself to regain the confidence, flexibility and consistency that made him golf’s most feared competitor and greatest star.
This is no easy task for someone whose body, and maybe even his spirit, has been so damaged over time. Just considering the long list of Tiger’s injuries is enough to make one’s body ache.
Forget about getting his 15th major in hopes of beating Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career major titles. He may have trouble getting back to making cuts again.
When it comes to changing his swing or his coaches, he truly is like an uneasy Tiger, always moving, always on the lookout for something new.
Foley was the third coach in his vaunted career. He began working with Butch Harmon as a teenager, and they won eight majors together. Harmon changed Tiger’s swing twice during his tenure, which ended in 2003. The biggest change came after Tiger won the Masters by 12 strokes.
Tiger altered his swing again with Hank Haney and won four majors and a total of 18 tournaments until their partnership ended in 2008 after he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
He hired Foley in 2010 for the PGA Championship. During their time together, Tiger suffered a variety of injuries but was still able to win three times in 2012 and five times in 2013. Yet he was unable to secure a major title with Foley.
Who will be his next coach? Your guess is as good as any although there are already odds being placed on the idea.
For someone so great, it is hard to fathom the numerous changes he has made to his swing. Just take a look at how his swing changed from 1992 through 2011.
But injury, more than age, has been Tiger’s downfall. And it all began with his knee, not his back.
"It all started with the knee," Gary Huston, host of The Golf Connection Radio Show, explained to B/R's Will Carroll back in April. "He used to have a one-plane swing and he would post that knee, really hyperextend it to create more force. Now he's shifted to an over-the-top Sean Foley swing with a soft knee. He simply can't make the same move and get the same results."
Tiger’s back injury, surgically repaired by microdiscectomy in March, may end up being his most debilitating yet.
Tiger rushed back into competitive play at the Quicken Loans National at the end of June. He played in just four tournaments, missing two cuts, withdrawing from one and finishing 69th at the U.S. Open.
He took the pressure off U.S. Ryder Team captain Tom Watson by announcing he would take time off to get his game back to a higher level.
"I've been told by my doctors and trainer that my back muscles need to be rehabilitated and healed. They've advised me not to play or practice now," Tiger wrote on his website.
He was not happy with his game or, it appears, with his coach.
Pride has always been Tiger’s Achilles' heel.
Will his pride stand in the way of him making the next and, perhaps, most drastic change to his swing?
As any golfer with a back injury will tell you, it is much harder to follow through on your swing and release, both physically and psychologically, when your back is sore or tight.
In Tiger’s case, he is known for his almost violent approach to the ball. There never seems to be a halfway. He attacks at full strength and extension and, in doing so, adds stress to his back, his knee and his entire body.
His next step should be to alter his swing and his approach.
Is there a reason guys with more languid swings, such as Phil Mickelson, are never injured? Will he adopt the straightforward, more cautious approach of older players such as Jim Furyk and David Toms, who continue to compete at a high level?
Can he win a major with that approach?
At age 38, Tiger has the body of a 50-year-old race car driver who has been in a never-ending series of accidents. His body is bumped and bruised, breaking down at an amazingly fast rate for a golfer. He appears to be more like a running back whose career expectancy is less than three years.
There is no doubt that Tiger changed the entire scope of physical fitness among golfers. His approach was more like other athletes. He favored protein over fat, hit the weights, ran long distances, worked on his core and displayed bulging muscles instead of a bulging gut.
You would think someone with such a regimen would suffer fewer injuries, not more. But that is another story.
Just take one look at Rory McIlroy’s fit frame to get an idea of Tiger’s impact on fitness. McIlroy is both the new face and the new body of golf. But McIlroy, like just about every other young player on the tour, drives the ball 300 yards on average.
What kind of changes will Tiger make in order to keep up with his competition?
Will he adopt the “old man” style of play, satisfied to drive it down the middle 280 and then rely on a hybrid to get his ball on the green? Will he eschew his overly physical approach to the ball in favor of a more fluid and less impactful swing?
This will be the subject of debate for many months to come.
The experts will discuss swing plane, swing path, forward shaft lean and any number of other technical details regarding Tiger’s swing.
Before he parted ways with Foley, his swing was already under great scrutiny.
Notably, Paul Azinger, a former pro golfer and now an ESPN analyst, observed:
I think one of the big differences that's very rarely articulated is the fact that while Tiger in his dominance always – for whatever reason – was in this quest to get better, I don’t remember Jack ever saying that. Jack might have made some tweaks and twerks, here and there, minor tweaks and twerks, but Tiger has made astronomical changes in a quest to get better. As a result, Tiger has actually gotten a little bit worse. I think we can all pretty much see that.
It is hard to believe that only one year ago, Tiger won five tournaments and finished as the No. 1 player in the world.
Yet despite all of the issues with his back and his current play, no one wants to second-guess this generation’s greatest player’s ability to resurrect himself again.
"Between playing bad and an injury to playing bad and being hurt now, he won five tournaments," golf teacher Brian Manzella says. "You don't ever count him out, and him playing good is good for all of us in the game."
Changing his swing yet again will be a monumental task, but it's exactly the sort of challenge that has made Tiger the most compelling athlete in sports.