“Golf can be taught,” that great American comedian and
archetypal duffer Leslie Nielsen (Airplane,
The Naked Gun) once quipped, “It just
can’t be learned.”
That hasn’t kept golf instruction from becoming a
multibillion dollar business. The likes
of Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler – self-taught pros with funky homespun swings
– have become rare exceptions. Every
other pro seems to have been coached from the cradle. Their grooved swings are as bland as a
vanilla milkshake at the clubhouse grill. The most famous golf teachers have become
celebrities in their own right. David
Ledbetter and others command profitable empires of videos, books, academies,
and Golf Channel appearances.
Even we amateurs no longer “play” golf.
We’re supposed to “work” on our games with the right drills,
instructional apps, and guidance from of our teaching pro with his taped video
It remains golf’s greatest illusion to think we can
revolutionize our game with just a few small adjustments. We’re convinced, as the wry golf writer
Herbert Warren Wind already observed a half century ago, that by modifying the way
“we bend our left knee” or “position our right thumb” that “even-par scores will
be no trouble at all.” That eternal hope
of getting it right, if only for a day, is part of the game’s allure. Golfers are like Coyote. We’re always ready to chase after
the Roadrunner again no matter that we know that our game will likely blow up
somewhere along the way before we can grab that juicy low score.
No less a golfing god than Tiger Woods turns out to share
the hacker’s illusion about the possibility of perfection. He’s now reinventing his game for the third
time, with a third instructor. His swing
has become golf’s most famous science experiment. One wonders, of course, whether Tiger might
play better if he stopped worrying so
much about his downswing plane angle, right shoulder tilt, and other arcana,
and instead just hit the ball. But Tiger,
so unique in other ways, has the mentality of Joe Duffer in hoping that his
latest swing makeover will change everything.
We get an insider’s look at Tiger’s struggles in Hank
Haney’s The Big Miss. Thanks in no small part to Jaime Diaz’s fine
ghostwriting, the book is a great read, and high on the bestseller lists. Haney himself comes across as a man of many
contradictions. He affects an
aw-shucks, Mr. Nice Guy persona, and yet clearly loved the limelight of being Tiger’s
teacher (and has busily milked it with his dreadful “The Haney Project” on the Golf Channel and now this book). He claims not to be defensive about
comparisons with his predecessor, Butch Harmon, but includes a long appendix
supposedly showing that Tiger did just as well under his tutelage. And Haney professes admiration for Tiger,
while depicting his former employer as cold, selfish, and arrogant -- and a
cheapskate to boot. With friends like Haney, as they say, Tiger doesn’t
need enemies; he has his share of those already between his jilted caddies and
My favorite moment is the tale of the popsicles According to Haney, when he’d stay with Tiger,
they’d watch tv in the evenings. Tiger
would sometimes fetch a popsicle from the freezer during commercial breaks. Not once, Haney reports, did the golfing god
ever offer to bring one for his houseguest.
Haney admits it may sound petty to make much of this, and, in fact, it
does a bit. But it’s just another example of what Haney judges
to be Tiger’s rudely imperious self-centeredness, not to mention his banal alpha
male obsession with hardcore military training and always having the upper
hand. The Big Miss is the doorman’s revenge, Haney’s payback for the poor
way he felt Tiger treated him while Haney collects some hefty book royalties in
the bargain. It’s not a flattering
portrait of Woods.
Golfwise, Haney recounts Tiger constantly mulling over swing
mechanics. When his teacher made
suggestions, he’d accept some, dismiss others.
Clearly, Tiger, like the rest of us, enjoys fiddling with
his swing, and the pleasure that comes with the prospect of fixing something
broken and imagining that our best still lies ahead. And yet, of course, the former Zeus of the
golf world must also hate it that his powers have diminished at least for now;
he seems to hold himself to a standard of perfection that may now be more
hindrance than asset in his quest to regain his divine form. It was Tiger’s pursuit of something yet
better that led to his split with Haney.
Now he has still another coach, Sean Foley, and one wonders how long
this one will last. Coaching Tiger is like
being one of Henry VIII’s wives, an uncertain proposition that can end on the chopping block.
I recall a story about Giotto, a genius of the paintbrush
and not the fairways. To pick a painter
for a large Vatican commission, the Pope sent messengers to Italy’s most famous Renaissance
artists for a sample of their best work.
Giotto, when the emissary arrived to his Florence studio, pulled out a sheet of paper, drew a perfect circle on it, and then handed it to the man. Is this all, the puzzled courier asked? Take it to your master, replied Giotto, and he’ll
understand. And the Pope, indeed amazed
that Giotto had drawn such a circle by his eye alone, awarded him the
But even Giotto, also an architect, surely knew that it’s
actually impossible to draw a circle that’s truly faultless down to the very last
millimeter. He sent his off to the Pope
What you can do with your own astonishing talent, if you’re
a Giotto or a Tiger Woods, may be close enough to perfect to proceed without worrying too much about it.