It didn't take long for the swing of Tiger Woods to come under scrutiny in the 2014 season. Woods' motion is always the subject of debate, particularly during this almost six-year major drought and after a Sean Foley redesign. But Tiger needed just three days in San Diego, his season debut, to ignite the first of what will probably be several discussions of whether he's taking the right approach with his mechanics.
Tiger's pass at the ball last week, especially in the opening round on Thursday, was definitely shorter. He did not take the club back and around as far as he has in the past, including just last year. This was not the full rip, where he'd get the club fully parallel and exhibit the range of a golfer who was also actually an athlete.
Brandel Chamblee, the notorious Woods critic, illustrated as much after Thursday's round, comparing the backswings of Woods from last year's Farmers Insurance Open to the 2014 opening round. Woods was noticeably tighter and shorter in the backswing, and it prompted Chamblee to even say, "The golf swing that I saw today looked like a 55-year-old man out there." It's still jarring to see players in the field consistently outdrive Woods, who doesn't care as much about distance as he did when he was younger. And throughout the first two days, both his playing partners, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker, were pounding it out there past his ball.
Woods' former swing coach, Hank Haney, would tell a different story. It's no secret that the Haney-Woods separation was messy, and the swing coach will now deliver his opinion and analysis of Woods' game on almost any platform and whenever he's asked. It's not that Woods looks old; it's that he's all swoll, Haney said. From his Sunday SiriusXM radio show (transcription via Golf.com):
"My opinion is he did too much of that. He does a lot of the gym stuff. I know you need to do some for golf, no doubt about it. You need to be in shape, you need to avoid injury, but my opinion is he really overdoes that … He looks like he's gained more muscle mass. When he was thinner and younger he was actually faster then. The strength maybe helps you get out of the rough but I'd agree that he's overdone it. But he loves to work out."
There were repeated allusions to Tiger bulking up during the weekend CBS broadcast, with commentators noting that he'd added noticeable muscle up top to the 14-time major winning frame. Having too much muscle, particularly in the shoulders and arms, can be an obstruction to the fluidity and range of a golf swing, and Woods has gotten bigger and adjusted his swing accordingly. Just last May, SB Nation's Brian Floyd explained the various changes in Tiger's swing over the years, illuminated by this helpful GIF (via Adam Sarson):
Now those are side-by-side iron shots, and Chamblee was mostly highlighting the shortness and tightness of the backswing with the driver. And Haney citing that Woods was not as "fast" as he used to be because of the bulk would also be a bigger issue with the full cuts taken with longer clubs.
It's more than plausible that Woods is voluntarily working through some things and was tinkering with Foley for this week. A notion emerged from the weekend that Tiger was taking a different approach to the season, testing out some alterations with his eye on the majors — sacrificing short-term success for additional controls at the four biggest events. That would certainly intensify the critiques when Woods tanks it at a non-major, like say ... a seven-hole stretch that featured five bogeys and two double-bogeys on the way to matching a second-worst career score.
Using non-majors to fiddle around would be a frustrating change for Woods, who's maniacally competitive and tries to win every event he starts. Has the drought changed the way he's going to approach a season and the non-major events? After five wins and another major-less summer in 2013, those are the kind of theories that will pop up after you check out mid-round at a Torrey Pines South Course you've owned your entire career.
Even if Tiger is using these events more as a testing ground, there were some unsettling trends and weaknesses in La Jolla that were definitely not because of tinkering. There were ugly shots off the tee for Woods, no doubt, but it was an uncharacteristic mess up around and on the green. It started on Thursday when he hit two poor shots out of the bunker and struggled to get the speed down on the poa annua greens. Woods earned his wins last year by not only dominating the par-5s, as he always does, but by also throwing darts into the greens with his wedges. His wedge work was the single biggest reason he won this event last year. It was kind of a disaster all three days this year — he was unimpressive out of the sand, often poor with wedge from the fairway, and ugly chipping and flopping the ball green side. His final chip on No. 18 on Saturday summed up his awful week with the short game (via Adam Sarson):
All the issues with the short shots aren't the result of trying something different with the swing. And while it won't set off a fire alarm after one tournament, short-game issues going forward will only inhibit his efforts to add control to the swing and tinker around. It was just last spring that Woods said he started winning because he finally felt comfortable enough with his Foley swing to transition over and work more on his short game.
Despite all the discussion of his swing and his physique, the failures with those wedges and the putter were the most startling shortcoming last week. At least we won't have to wait long to see Tiger again, as the No. 1 player in the world will be in attendance at the Dubai Desert Classic this week. Here's hoping this isn't the start of a months-long microanalysis of the technical component of the game's best player in the run-up to the Masters.