Last week Tiger Woods announced that he was parting ways with instructor Sean Foley. I wanted to examine Tiger’s game over the course of his professional career to get a better understanding of what was going on and what may have caused him to change swing coaches over the years.
Please bear with me as many of the key metrics listed below were not available during these years. Nonetheless, we can still get a pretty good idea of Tiger’s game during the Butch Harmon years.
For starters, he was one of the longest golfers on Tour. This was despite using a steel-shafted driver when most of the Tour had switched to drivers with lighter graphite shafts. The pinnacle of Woods’ success was in 2000; he won nine times including the U.S. Open, The Open Championship and PGA Championship. He ranked second in Driving Distance that season and 54th in Driving Accuracy, which is flat-out incredible.
We also see with his driving that his misses were fairly even. As I researched in a previous column I wrote (http://www.golfwrx.com/115076/the-myth-behind-the-one-way-miss/), there is a large myth about a one-way miss being preferable. Instead, the best drivers on Tour typically do not miss their tee shots in one direction. And the golfers on Tour who do miss heavily to one side are usually struggling with a problem shot they have yet to resolve. For Tiger, there is no imbalance of his missed tee shots.
For the years we have the data, Tiger was a very good iron player. The “Zone play” data is only on shots from the fairway because that is where we had the most complete information for Tiger over the years. This is fine because from a statistical standpoint, shots from the fairway give us the best indicator of a golfer’s iron play. But, we do see that hitting shots from the rough was a large issue for Tiger as he ranked near the bottom on Tour.
The putting data is scarce during this timeframe, but he appeared to putt fairly well in 2003. While ballstriking has a larger influence to success on Tour than putting, every piece of data I’ve researched about the game points to Tiger putting extremely well in 2000.
The Haney years are best depicted as a large regression in Tiger’s driving mixed with a tremendous progression with his iron play. There also seemed to be an improvement with his putting.
Tiger was still fairly long off the tee and was generating as much as 124.6 mph of club head speed. While we do not have any hard data on his club head speed under Butch Harmon, it was reported to be around 125 mph during that timeframe. In the Haney years, however, we start to see major issues with Tiger’s accuracy off the tee.
In 2000, Tiger was 54th in fairway percentage and in 2004 he fell to 177th and then 193rd in 2005. He also started to develop a very pronounced right miss bias, which at its worst was at 24 percent of misses to the right rough versus 10 percent to the left rough in 2008.
Furthermore, we start to see not only a dip in Tiger’s club head speed in 2009 and 2010, but we start to see Tiger become more conservative off the tee. The biggest indication is the difference in Tiger’s Driving Distance (measured drives) ranking versus his Driving Distance in all drives measured by a laser. When the “all drives” ranking is noticeably lower than the “measured drives” ranking, it is an indication that the golfer is laying up off the tee more often.
I don’t think any of this is revelatory, as those who watched Tiger during the Haney years saw the issues he had with hitting blocked shots off the tee. And then he played very conservatively off the tee by hitting a lot of 3 woods and 2 irons in order to keep the ball in play. Remember the 2009 PGA Championship, where Tiger lost to Y.E. Yang? Tiger almost never hit driver off the tee in the final round.
Tiger’s iron play during the Haney era is a different story. We can see by his rankings how incredible Tiger was, however, that doesn’t quite give the entire picture. The key area for iron play on Tour are shots from the “Red Zone,” which is 175-to-225 away from the hole. Not only did Tiger rank 1st in 5 out of his 7 years in the Red Zone under Haney, but he often ranked well ahead of the 2nd ranked player.
In 2006, the 2nd-ranked player from the Red Zone was Kenny Perry. Tiger was hitting it 9 percent closer to the hole from the Red Zone than Kenny Perry did that season. In 2007, Ernie Els was the 2nd-ranked player from the Red Zone. Tiger was hitting it 5 percent closer to the cup on average than Els from the Red Zone.
And not only was Tiger becoming an incredible iron player from the fairway, but his play from the rough greatly improved. The numbers and the victories dictate that had to happen because he was finding the rough much more often. Therefore, he had to improve his shots from the rough in order keep winning.
Lastly, we see a very telling and interesting trait of Tiger’s game in his putting metrics. He was generally a good to spectacular putter from 3-to-5 feet, however, he was incredible at making putts from 15-to-25 feet. Typically, Tour players do not rank high or low with any consistency on putts more than 15 feet long. A Tour player who putts poorly from longer than 15 feet one season is likely to progress towards the mean the next season. Conversely, a Tour player who putts well from longer than 15 feet one season is more likely to regress towards the mean the next season.
Tiger, on the other hand, putted fantastic from 15-to-25 feet five seasons in a row: from 2004 to 2008. He slipped in 2009, but countered that by putting superbly on putts longer than 25 feet. This shows that Tiger is at the top of his game when he is making putts from 3-to-5 feet and from 15-to-25 feet. He was very wild off the tee and then became conservative off the tee in the Haney era. So, that will mean more birdie putts from 15-to-25 feet and more par saves from 3-to-5 feet. So when Tiger had his putter working from those distances, he was very difficult to beat.
In the Foley years, we see that Tiger’s club head speed decreased, however, we also saw that decrease in club head speed in the 2009 and 2010 seasons when Tiger was still working with Haney. I think it is safe to say that the knee injury certainly took a toll on his club head speed. After the 2011 season, we see that Tiger started to not miss the right all of the time. And his fairway percentage improved nicely to 66th in 2012.
What I find interesting is that Tiger had a very nice season driving the ball in 2012. He was not laying up much off the tee, as his Driving Distance rank on measured drives versus all drives was virtually the same. But, after that successful 2012 season, Tiger started to become incredibly conservative off the tee and was laying up off the tee quite often. His iron play regressed, but it essentially became more human from the incredible iron play during the Haney years. His troubles from the rough also started to come back.
Lastly, Tiger’s putting was good but not elite like it was in many of the seasons under Haney. He still made a lot of 15-to-25 foot putts. In fact, after he won his 4th event of 2013 (The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass), he was ranked No. 1 on putts from 15-to-25 feet, well ahead everybody else. He needed to putt that well from 15-to-25 feet, however, because he was becoming so conservative off the tee that he would leave himself with longer birdie putts than Tour players who were hitting driver off the tee and thus and hitting their approach shots closer to the hole. And since his play from the rough regressed, that required him to make more putts from 3-to-5 feet to save par and he simply could not get that done under Foley.
In summation, Tiger had some incredible parts to his game under Harmon and Haney. His driving under Harmon was at times incredible. His iron play and putting from 15-to-25 feet under Haney was off the charts. The injuries have taken their toll and it has greatly hurt his club head speed. He has further exasperated the matter by becoming extremely conservative off the tee, even when his accuracy greatly improved under Foley.
At this point, Tiger will either need to find a way to rejuvenate himself and regain his club head speed or he will have to change the way he plays the game at 115-to-116 mph club head speed. The numbers already show the effect that his injuries have had on his game. So, any further injuries will just amplify the issues.