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February 20, 2012
Tiger Woods is relaxed, more engaging and has put his personal problems behind him, but Phil Mickelson's romp in a head-to-head showdown raised more questions about the new Tiger as he chases Jack Nicklaus's coveted 18
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February 20, 2012

The Meaning Of Pebble Beach

Tiger Woods is relaxed, more engaging and has put his personal problems behind him, but Phil Mickelson's romp in a head-to-head showdown raised more questions about the new Tiger as he chases Jack Nicklaus's coveted 18

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Tiger's 43L green coat might be a little baggy on him now. You saw him at Pebble Beach. (The TV ratings were through the blimp.) He has shed the cartoonish Michelin Man upper body he had circa 2007. He looks great. He has been playing some beautiful bank shots and stingers and baby fades. He recently shot a 63 in a casual round at Seminole, Hogan's old Florida winter hangout, playing with friends. (Friends!) He's swinging with oceanic rhythm. At the Presidents Cup in November in Australia, where he secured the winning point for the U.S., he wore a silly hat and actually made skin contact with strangers. People in South Florida see him at the Palm Beach Gardens Mall with his two kids. He seems more at peace now than at any time over the past decade. At Pebble he talked admiringly about the sounds made by Phil's pure shots. Even during his horrible putting round on Sunday, Tiger could have been wearing one of those LIFE IS GOOD hats.

All this contentment may be good for his golf—or not. There's no way to know. Tiger has spent most of his life playing with fury. Check out his jawline on some of those famous fist-pump photographs. Also, Tiger alone can't decide where he'll finish in an event. That fear factor thing is so 2002. Mickelson relishes the idea of playing with Woods at Augusta, or anywhere else. So do Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler and all those other kids.

At the Masters, Tiger will almost certainly be on the leader board through three rounds. That's an Augusta perennial and a gift to us. What we don't know is where his head, swing and putting stroke will be on Sunday.

There's an accepted wisdom in golf, promulgated chiefly by Nicklaus and his friend Lee Trevino, that to win at Augusta National you must hit the ball high, so that it stops quickly on her waving-flag greens. Last year Tiger's newish instructor talked in detail about Tiger's ball flight in a interview. (Yes, these are the things that occupy us.)

Foley said, "If Tiger moves better laterally with his lower body, and we are keeping his head still, that will create more of a frontal plane or side tilt away from the target, which will shallow out his attack angle. And since the hands are forward at impact, we are actually maintaining the club's loft at impact. To be honest, we have had a more difficult time hitting it lower with what he is learning.... [He's] hitting it higher than ever."

Tiger likes that kind of techie talk. While Mickelson's analysis of his own game is becoming simpler, Tiger's is becoming more complex. Still, he has looked locked in with his new move in his two tournaments this year, at least through 54 holes. That was true last week at Pebble and last month at a tournament in Abu Dhabi, when he was tied for the lead through three rounds with a hatless Englishman named Robert Rock. Sunday in Abu Dhabi was not pretty, either. Post Y.E. Yang—posthydrant—Tiger has shown doubt. The old one never did.

For years, Tiger has talked about his desire "to own" his swing. But in Abu Dhabi he said he has "grown to understand what Sean wants me to do and how my body is going to do those things." Foley is a fascinating theorist who teaches a bunch of good players, but none of them has won a major under his watch. Yes, it's all golf, but majors really are different. The panting fans and jostling TV crews and nasty pin placements—plus all those golfing ghosts—can suck the air right out of your lungs. Years before he started working with Woods, Haney coached Mark O'Meara to two major titles. That's more than a line on a résumé. Mickelson works with Butch Harmon, Tiger's coach for his first eight majors.

Tiger's work with Foley, and with Foley's lean-forward method, is surely rooted in technique and science, but what Woods is doing is an act of faith too. That's different for Tiger, who is slow to trust people, and pretty cool. Talking about his swing changes, Tiger likes to say, "It's a process." It is. His shots have less curve to them now, but his distance control is not there yet. For now, process has the lead. On Sunday at Pebble, Tiger got passed by Jason Kokrak, Greg Owen and Jimmy Walker, among others. Rock wasn't great on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, but when Tiger needed it most, his new swing was not there for him. Rocky won.

All the greats have tweaked their swings over time as their bodies changed along with the tools of their trade. Last week Mickelson softened his rear leg at the top of his backswing. But a wholesale reinvention in prime time? That's never happened. You'd be a fool to second-guess Tiger on the wisdom of this. The 14 majors, the 71 Tour victories—he most likely knows what he's doing. To play golf at the highest level requires something like OCD because it demands enormous devotion to practice, and practicing golf can get dull. Curtis Strange won the U.S. Open in 1988 and '89 and never won on Tour again. He got bored with his swing. Woods, an early riser and an intense worker, can't afford to get bored. His days are too long. He needs to fill his days with something productive, now more than ever.

The development of a new swing is also useful because it gives Tiger something to talk about in public, something that looks forward. At every event he has one pretournament press conference that might last 15 minutes, and talking about his swing eats clock. Nobody asks him about Dr. Anthony Galea or whom he is dating or the anger he might have at the tabloids that traipsed through his trash and his private life.

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