A number of factors go in to Tiger Woods hitting the ball straighter. (Franklin/Getty images)
By Travis Fulton, Director of Instruction, TOUR Academies
I spent most of my weekend situated near the 16th tee box at Firestone Country Club, analyzing swings on DIRECTV’s Launchpad channel with fellow PGATOUR.COM contributor Mark Immelman. When Tiger Woods reached the tee on Firestone’s signature par-5, 667-yard hole on Sunday, I was curious as to whether he’d play it conservatively and hit his customary squeeze cut, or try to draw it like he did on Friday when he flirted with a 59 at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. Woods, carrying an insurmountable seven-shot lead, had an emphatic answer, peeling off yet another bomb of a draw some 300-plus yards down the fairway.
That one drive told me all I need to know about the state of Tiger’s swing today, and his chances of winning this week’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester. Let’s just say that when he’s booming a draw on command like that, and hitting 63 percent of his fairways, the rest of the field is in trouble. Big trouble.
Just two years ago, Tiger hit an astonishingly low 48.9 percent of his fairways, which was good for 186th on the PGA TOUR. The paint job on his newly reconstructed swing was still very far from dry, and his drives were all over the map. Today, there’s no question that the swing changes he and coach Sean Foley began implementing three summers ago are taking shape. He’s not only hitting the ball better, but he’s hitting it a lot straighter -- both off the tee and with his irons. For the second consecutive year his driving accuracy is hovering around 64 percent, and at Bridgestone he was first in the field in proximity to the hole (25 feet, 8 inches) and second in greens in regulation (73.6 percent).
Why is Woods hitting the ball straighter? I chalk it up to two key factors. No. 1, his clubface is more square at the top of the backswing, meaning that the angle of the face matches that of his lead (left) forearm. Whereas before it gravitated toward being more open (i.e., toe of clubhead pointing down toward the ground), now it’s square, so he doesn’t have to work so hard to rotate the face through impact. No. 2, the shaft is more on plane now whereas before it had a tendency to get too horizontal, or laid off, at the top of the swing, with the butt end of the club pointing outside the extended target line. The combination of the face being open and the shaft laid off made it difficult for Tiger to sync up his arms and club with his body on the downswing. His body pivot (i.e., rotational speed) would get too fast for his arms, causing the club to get “stuck” behind him. As a result, he’d often hit a big push to the right of the fairway.
Now that he’s got the shaft more on plane (i.e., pointing to the extended target line at the top of the swing) and the face square, he has an easier time getting his arms back down in front of him on the downswing. He’s better able to match up his arm swing with his very athletic body speed.
When Tiger first made these changes, it seemed he was aiming some 20 to 25 yards left of the target line with his driver. This moved his swing direction more to the left and perhaps gave him a better feel of keeping the club out in front of him on the downswing. By aiming and swinging more to the left, he was still able to keep his shots playable if he got a little stuck. In fact, it still appears Tiger with his driver hits a little inside path cut shot.
Now that the swing changes are more comfortable to him, he’s able to bring his aim and swing direction back to the right a bit and hit a draw with the same swing that produces his patented squeeze cut. In fact with most of his clubs, it appears he has it down to the point that whichever way he swings the club, the ball will slightly curve in the opposite direction.
Woods is going to need to rely on both shots this week if he’s to going to navigate Oak Hill’s super-tight fairways and add a 15th major championship to his resume. After what I just witnessed this past week at Bridgestone, I wouldn’t bet against it.
Travis Fulton is the Director of Instruction for the TOUR Academies at TPC Sawgrass and the World Golf Village. For more game-improvement tips from the TOURAcademy instructors, on-the-spot club recommendations and 3D previews of each hole you play, download the TOURCaddie PRO app at www.pgatourcaddie.com.