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June 14, 2009
Everyone offered an opinion, but all it took was a few words from Jack Nicklaus to get Tiger Woods to rediscover his awesome swing
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June 14, 2009

Tiger Set Free

Everyone offered an opinion, but all it took was a few words from Jack Nicklaus to get Tiger Woods to rediscover his awesome swing

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EVERYTHING'S FASTER in New York. On Monday morning, on the sports page of the New York tabs, Tiger's win at the Memorial was right there, alongside the Yankees and the Mets. (WOODS HI-JACKS NICKLAUS' TOURNEY, exclaimed the Post.) New Yorkers, though, were on to the next thing: "Yeah, but can he win the Open?" That is, the U.S. Open, to be held next week at Bethpage Black, a vast oasis of fescue rough and magic-carpet fairway surrounded by dense Long Island suburbia. Woods won the 2002 U.S. Open there, in the days when his fist pumps could rattle trees. But this new Tiger, the one who won at Memorial—the one who drives it in play with three-woods and five-woods, who barely celebrates his hole-outs, who wins from the clubhouse, long before 60 Minutes starts ticking—who is this guy, and how did he suddenly get here? ¶ Johnny Miller, the winner of the 1973 U.S. Open and lead analyst at Bethpage for NBC, has long been Tiger's most incisive critic (and, at times among the microphone crowd, his only objective fan). Last week, before the Memorial, Miller said in an interview, "I've had a dream about 20 times where he comes to me and asks me for a lesson." In Miller's dream he instructs Woods to hit shots with a slight pause at the top of his swing, as he did from 1997 through 2000. Miller also asks Woods to soften the squat move he has been making in recent years, where his head and body come too close to the ball on the downswing and he gets in his own way.

Miller, and others steeped in swing mechanics, watched in amazement as Tiger played some of the worst shots of his career this year at the Masters, at the Quail Hollow tournament in Charlotte and at the Players. In those tournaments Woods let loose a year's worth of f bombs. His postround practice sessions, where an elite player can quickly pinpoint problems and turn things around, were often brief, in deference to a left knee still in recovery from ACL surgery following the 2008 U.S. Open. Tiger didn't say much about the state of the swing in his interviews. (He seldom does.) But his coach, Hank Haney, may have revealed more than he intended in an interview last month with SI.

Haney said, "I don't understand why everybody thinks I'm going to get fired. Am I going to get fired when he asks me to come to Isleworth? Is he going to fire me when we go to Bethpage? During the Yankees game we're going to afterward? In August when he releases his new video where I'm his teacher?

"He has a new leg. He has a new swing because his knee isn't flopping around like it once was. The media give him no slack. It wears me out, and it wears him out as well. I told Tiger about all this crap about me being fired, and he smiled and said, 'Welcome to my world.'"

It's easy, and maybe correct, to see Haney's mini-rant as a by-product of Tiger's erratic play. Haney knows that Miller, and prominent teaching pros, have been second-guessing what Tiger was doing, and what Haney was teaching.

But then Tiger went to Ohio, and there everything changed. Jack set him free. Nicklaus, generally straightforward when talking to reporters, said he felt that Tiger, in his return from surgery, was making a swing that protected his left knee. Presented with Nicklaus's observation, Tiger acknowledged for the first time that he was, in fact, doing just that. He went from the press tent to the practice tee at Muirfield Village and started hitting balls, in the rain, and took some of the most beautiful, rhythmic swings he has made in years, with much less dip. It was as if he had absorbed Johnny's dream lesson by osmosis. It was this new-and-improved swing that allowed Tiger to win at Memorial.

But ball striking alone will not win you a U.S. Open. You must putt, too. At the Memorial, Tiger's putting was spotty, but the putting guru Stan Utley, who uses Tiger's stroke as his model, thinks Woods will putt well at Bethpage. He has seen glimpses of Woods's putting this year on TV and in person and has concluded that his stroke is as sound as ever. Mechanics, Utley noted, come back quickly from a layoff. Feel is slower to return.

At Bethpage, Utley said, Woods will have one additional and important thing going for him: The greens there are poa annua, the grass on which Tiger grew up putting, and the type of grass on which he putted so well last year at Torrey Pines. The ball tends to bounce on poa annua, Utley said, and Tiger hits his putts with a slight (and ideal) hooking action that encourages the ball to hug the grass, hold its line and finish at the bottom of the hole.

Reclaiming his feel is a work in progress for Tiger, and that applies not only to the putter, but also to his entire body. Last year Woods won the U.S. Open on a left leg that was falling apart, but at least he knew what it could and couldn't do. One of the difficult things for Woods at this year's Open will be to know exactly what he can and cannot count on his left knee to do, particularly when playing out of deep rough.

The former Ryder Cupper Brad Faxon had ACL surgery on his right knee in 2005 and again in '07. Faxon says that since his surgeries he has not felt like his old self. Tiger, likely, doesn't either.

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