Is Tiger Woods a Mechanic or Magician?

Mechanic or magician? Think about it. Virtually every great player of the last century or so has been emphatically one or the other. It began with master mechanic Harry Vardon, “the father of the modern golf swing” and the first one to sort out all the gears and levers of hitting a ball.

Vardon was followed by the first great magician, Walter Hagen, he of the flamboyant personality, loose swing, and wild tee shots. The Haig knew his weaknesses, said he expected to miss at least seven shots per round, and didn’t much care because he knew he could scramble out of any trouble.

Next came another mechanic (curiously the parade of mechanics and magicians alternated for nearly a century), the immortal Bobby Jones, a cerebral fellow with degrees in English, law, and engineering, who was likely the most intelligent player ever to dominate the game. Jones had a swing lauded for its “lazy grace” but his analytical golf mind ran full throttle.  His writings on how to play are among the most lucid the game has produced.

Jones was followed by perhaps the most monumental natural talent of all, Sam Snead. Self-taught and double jointed, the barefoot boy came out of the hills of Virginia and onto the tour, winning a record 82 events, the first when he was 23, the last at the record age of 52.

Just after Slammin’ Sam came Bantam Ben Hogan. Lacking the size and talent of Snead, he famously dug his game out of the dirt, practicing harder and thinking more deeply about the swing than any of his peers, and transformed an obstreperous hook into the Hogan fade that would win nine major championships.

Hogan also won universal admiration after recovering from a near-fatal auto accident to have the best years of his career, but he never won the hearts of the public. Arnold Palmer did, thanks in part to his propensity to slug the ball both into and out of trouble and almost will putts into the hole. His only teacher was his father.

Arnie’s counterpoint, of course, was Jack Nicklaus, coached as a boy by Jack Grout and later in his career by Jim Flick. Although blessed with enormous natural talent, he won his major championships as much through his ability to size up the course and the competition and then meticulously manage himself and his game so as to minimize mistakes. No one ever thought his or her way around a golf course better than Nicklaus.

Among Nicklaus’s rivals, the two most prominent are both magicians—Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, each a short game wizard with great hands, while the third member of the Big Three—Gary Player—was a mechanic who managed to stay abreast of Arnie and Jack through manic determination, hard practice, and intense physical conditioning.

During the decade or so when European players rose to prominence, the two leaders were a magician, Seve Ballesteros, who could make the ball disappear off the tee into all manner of peril and then  make it disappear again, this time into the hole, with unfathomable recovery shots, and Nick Faldo, a short-but-straight hitting mechanic who, like Hogan, changed his swing mid-career and won six major championships largely by hanging around and letting others lose them.

Greg Norman was about as close to a hybrid as the game has produced, a long, straight hitter with a creative short game. On balance, however, he was a mechanic, the first of Butch Harmon’s big teaching successes. Finally, we have America’s Seve, Phil Mickelson, who at times tries to be mechanical and analytical, relying on the likes of Harmon and Dave Pelz, but owes much of his success to being perhaps the best wedge player the game has ever seen.

Which brings us back to Tiger. As in so many respects, he is the exception, combining the raw skills of a magician with the caution and tenacity of a mechanic.  His natural talent has been there since the day he began bopping balls as a toddler. At the same time, he has been coached non-stop, first by his father and then by a series of instructors—Rudy Duran, John Anselmo, Butch Harmon, Hank Haney, and Sean Foley.

Until recently, it  all worked. Now, however, he is lost—lost between magic and mechanics. In his incessant obsession with retooling his swing, he seems to have lost his touch around and on the greens. And having walked away from Sean Foley and the world of launch monitors and spin rates, he is a mechanic unsure of just how to use his tools.

Tiger has the mind of Nicklaus, the physical fitness of Player, the hands of Ballesteros, and the work ethic of Hogan. He needs to decide which one of those assets is most important, which should take the lead in moving him forward.

I don’t know the answer, but I know the one I’d love to see him try. There was only one time in Tiger’s life when he was a more dominant golfer than he was at the turn of the century, and that was when he was a kid, winning dozens of tournaments by dozens of strokes over dozens of kids several years older than he. That was before any teacher really got hold of him—it was pure talent. He still has that talent, and along with it a knowledge of his swing and how to golf his ball around the course.

I’d love to see him go out and play like a kid again—play golf, not swing, freewheel through the ball the way Rory McIlroy does instead of becoming ball-bound in a miasma of moves and thoughts. Play the way Tom Watson does at age 65—miss a few fairways, accept that as Walter Hagen did, and use your genius to get out of trouble and into the cup.  Continue to bust your butt, but not in the gym or on the range—on the short game and putting. Forge the last years of your career as the ultimate magician.