Can Tiger win the Grand Slam?
Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie think so and as Woods prepares for the season's first major at Augusta this week various experts tell James Corrigan why the world No 1 could make history in 2008
Monday 07 April 2008
When Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie – the Hinge and Bracket of European golf – stop the bickering and consent to agree on something, one knows that thing must have a hell of a lot of credibility. But then golf is seemingly unanimous in believing that this could be the year when Tiger Woods wins the modern game's first calendar Grand Slam.
While Faldo is unequivocal about the world No 1's chances – "less of the 'could', this 'will' be the year Tiger does it" – Montgomerie is more circumspect about the likelihood of a feat the bookmakers rate as a mere 8-1 shot. But only just. "This is the first time I believe anyone has ever had a fantastic opportunity to win all four in the same year," said Montgomerie this week, pointing out that Woods already has held all four at the same time after the Masters in 2001.
"I believe he will win next week at Augusta. And to be honest I hope he does now that I haven't qualified. That is not against any European winning, but I just think it would be good for the game to have this added interest in someone trying to do the impossible. It would build and build. Everybody but everybody would be talking about it."
Everybody is already talking about it. But why? Why now? Why this year? After all, Woods has been at the top of his profession for more than a decade. The reason is what Montgomerie describes as "a convergence of things". "Tiger is back to swinging the club as well as he did in 2000," said the Scot. "And if the truth be known, I don't think his main rivals are at the top of their game at the moment. The other factors stack up for him, as well. The major venues all suit, he seems very comfortable with his personal life and he's approaching the peak age for a professional golfer. And then there's the form he is in."
Indeed, that is particularly persuasive. Woods has won nine of the last 11 tournaments he has entered and up until his defeat at Doral two weeks ago, was being tipped in some quarters to go through the season unbeaten. While that was up the numbskull end of ridiculous, the Grand Slam is most definitely feasible. If only because he, himself, believes it to be.
"For most of my career, I've won more than four tournaments per year and all I have to do is win the right four," said the 13-time major champion. "I've done those a few times and I think if you put it all together, have luck on your side and all the stars line up, it certainly is possible."
So can he do it, will he and would it have anything to do with luck? On these pages The Independent takes a look at his strengths. And fruitlessly attempts to unearth any weaknesses.
THE SWING: James Day (PGA qualified golf coach, director of Urban Golf Soho and Independent columnist)
The best way to say it is that Tiger "owns" his swing right now. He might very well have been a straighter, more consistent driver with the swing that Butch Harmon had developed with him in 2000 but that was essentially compact and one-dimensional. Now, with new coach Hank Haney, he has a swing that allows him a huge variation of shots. Because he absolutely believes he is the greatest player to walk the planet he wants to win tournaments in the way he wants to win tournaments, which is playing the shots he wants to hit.
In the long term he will win more because of this massive range and of his ability to scramble. His driving still needs to get back to the consistency of 2000, but he has so many more shots with his irons. There's nobody at the moment who has his ball-striking ability, in terms of shaping the shots. In fact, nobody comes close. He has incredible trajectory control. He can hit the ball way up in the air, he can hit it low, cut it, draw it. I don't want to get too technical but this new swing is far more "pure". It is a joy to watch and can sometimes be quite embarrassing for his partners, who must recognise how much more evolved this golfer is than them. It's just so obvious.
What I think we are seeing now is the transition that always has to follow when a player changes his swing – that of not having to think about the mechanics all the time and to have the faith simply to see the shot and just go for it. And Tiger can have a bad swing day, and still win. He knows how his swing works and knows how to fix it. It's now just Tiger the athlete having the ability to hit any shot he wants. It's so entertaining.
THE PUTTING Phil Kenyon (PGA professional and director of Instruction at Harold Swash Putting School of Excellence)
Tiger doesn't seem to miss putts at clutch moments. He can handle the pressure and it's probably his mindset which sets him apart from everybody else on the greens. From a technical perspective I've never been close enough to see exactly what he does, although what I have noticed is his tempo and the intensity he puts in on the practice green. Tempo is crucial when it comes to distance control and as most putts are breaking putts out here, if you don't get the right pace then the ball doesn't go in.
Tiger's tempo doesn't change even when he is practising. You know, it's easy for players to just stand on the practice greens, knock in a few five-footers and have a chat with the caddie.
Tiger does not do that. He has these drills he uses and you can tell he's getting everything he possibly can out of that time. He then takes this intensity on to the greens on the course. It's frustrating, but most pros don't have specialised putting coaches; I don't think Tiger does. But how he differs is that he knows his own stroke. He uses a system that we also use, which basically measures 27 different parameters of the stroke. It collates the info in a database and so you can compare and know what you're doing when you're putting well.
A lot of the guys don't know necessarily what they do with their stroke and so have a tendency to tinker every week. It's obvious what that does to consistency. Tiger's like Nicklaus when he's over a putt. He can almost will the putt in the hole.
THE PHYSIQUE: Mike Pedersen (One of America's top golf fitness training experts)
Do I have to keep talking about Tiger's dominance, and why he is blowing away the other players? It's because he puts the work in. Yes, that's right, the dreaded word "work".
What work is it? Well everyone in the game know about his physical training in regards to golf exercises, stretching and dynamic training with medicine balls, dumb-bells and tubing. So why won't other players step up to challenge him on a regular basis? I know that's easier said than done, but it's their job for crying out loud! I don't ever see any of them getting in shape and challenging him. They might get the rare occasional win when Tiger has an off day, but head to head, Tiger will beat them every time. If you've been like the majority of golfing fans, you've seen Tiger's body metamorphose.
He has put on something like 30 pounds of muscle since he came on tour 10 years ago. I know some might ascribe that to his youth, but his dedication to his fitness should be admired and emulated by any golfer who wants to improve. It's no secret most of the tour players are working out to be competitive, but Tiger has taken that to another level. His body has been trained physically to hit near-perfect golf shots. What that means is he can take time off and come out and laser his balls right at his target time and time again. The average golfer would lose it in one week, let alone 10.
THE MIND: Jamil Qureshi (Englishman who is a sports psychologist to many winners on the European Tour as well as Bolton Wanderers FC)
He's way ahead of the rest in the mental department. Why do I say this? Well, sometimes he doesn't sleep so well, sometimes the air con isn't too great in the hotel room, sometimes he's got toothache or sometimes he's not playing so good, or the course doesn't suit him. But somehow he still puts himself in the mindset to give himself the maximum opportunity to perform well.
The rest see these "issues" as obstacles, while he sees them merely as distractions or even challenges. The rest give themselves ready-made reasons to fail. That's how he can do it week in, week out. How? Well, in his background there must have been a set of circumstances that came together at the right time – almost like an "eclipse" – to help maintain his confidence and courage levels. We all know about his dad being a Green Beret and his mum being a Buddhist and him practising mediation and so forth. Then there was him seeing a "success coach" when he was 13. We are most malleable in our belief system when we're young. Kids don't play being cowboys and Indians they are cowboys and Indians. I believe it absolutely makes a difference to see a sports psychologist when you're young. Nobody did it when Tiger was doing it. They may do it now, but this is yet another area in which they are playing catch-up. Along with the discrepancies in talent, technique, athleticism etc.
THE 2008 MAJOR COURSES: Colin Montgomerie (Scotsman who has won the European Order of Merit eight times)
Do this year's major venues suit Tiger? Well let's go from the beginning. To win all four, you have to win the first one and he will win the first one. He is overdue a win in the Masters. He hasn't won it for a couple of years. And the way the whole thing goes and the way the putting is and the way he is playing... Well Augusta has always been perfect for him. Even the "new Augusta".
The US Open course, Torrey Pines? He has won there the last four years at the Buick so that is almost a given. And if he wins the first two, the Open at Birkdale becomes very, very serious. It is the draw he gets on the Southport coast that could just stop him. It could get windy, very windy, and I am talking five or six shots difference from morning to afternoon. If he gets the bum end of the draw he could struggle. But if he gets lucky on the first two days with the wind, then it obviously could happen.
And then the USPGA at Oakland Hills. You see the winners there – Nicklaus, Hogan and Palmer. I know it is a different style of course but, Christ, Tiger could win in a car park. He can win anywhere. So yes, this batch of venues really, really suits him.
THE DETERMINATION: Thomas Bjorn (Dane who has won nine titles on the European Tour)
People have this idea that Tiger is obsessed with this drive towards the magic number of 19 [beating Nicklaus's major record of 18]. But I honestly think he lives by the creed of making each day that little bit better than the day before. The sooner other players accept that we are second best, the more chance we have to live up to our potential.
If you are trying to beat him, good luck. You are not going to. He is not going to let you. I don't think that is defeatist – it is realistic. He is incredibly determined and will work and work at getting better. People ask why we don't stand up to this guy. We are not as good as he is, that's why. That doesn't mean that in any given week, someone can't beat him. But nobody is going to do it week in, week out. I remember when I beat him [in the Dubai Desert Classic in January, 2001] – it took me until June to recover. He does that every week, lives through that every week. That is what he does. The will to win is phenomenal as is the will to improve. I don't think we have seen the best of him yet. That in itself is a pretty scary thought.
THE EXPERIENCE: Nick Faldo (Englishman who has six majors to his name, including three Green Jackets)
Whenever anybody has asked me when some of the young Brits are going to start winning majors my answer is always when they have been in the heat of the major battle a few times. In my opinion their chances will grow the more they experience it.
Tiger is, as ever, the exception. He prevailed first time up and has gained the experience while winning, although it is curious that he has never once won a major when starting the final round behind. Why? Goodness knows. Although I do have a theory why he always wins when in the lead or tied for the lead.
It's because he is in the final group and when he is in the final group the circus surrounding that final group is that much bigger. Tiger is obviously more used to it than anyone and can cope with its unique pressures far, far better. Together with all this he is approaching the supposed peak age for a professional golfer and he seems in a very happy place personally, too. So much for the baby distracting him!
THE FOCUS: John Paramor (European Tour's chief referee)
Over the years I've struck up a rapport with Tiger, enjoyed the odd beer and had many chats. He's a great bloke. But what happened in Germany in 2002 will always stick in my mind.
Tiger was in a play-off with Monty and, as is my job, I got the two players together on the 18th tee, the sudden-death hole and told them what would happen next. It was all formal stuff like "Tiger you have won the toss and will tee off first" and when that was done, I shook their hands and wished them good luck. Well, Tiger and Monty halved the 18th twice and twice I travelled back with Tiger on a buggy to the tee.
The third time Tiger beat Monty. As I went over to shake his hand again Tiger's eyes lit up and he said "JP, how you doing? Where've you been all week? I haven't seen you." He had been so focused on the tournament, so in the zone or whatever it is, that he was oblivious to the identity of this rules official barking out the orders, indeed to anything that was irrelevant to his task at hand. Frightening.
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