The man who took Woods to different plane

You could not find many in golf who were prepared to yesterday, because that was a terrifying notion. Who could possibly be "a better player now" than when he held all four majors at the same time? "Tiger", chortled that little voice at the back of every professional's mind. "Only Tiger."

And however hard they tried to blot it out and to dismiss this latest five-shot Open waltz as nothing more than a blood-curdling blast from that best forgotten past, they just could not.

First, they went to the stats book for comfort but then wished they had not. All those damned lies told them was that if the 29-year-old wins the USPGA Championship in New Jersey next month, at a course that also looks tailor-made for his game, then this will be his finest major season to date, even eclipsing that golden Millennium year when he happened to win three of them. The one that got away five years ago was the Masters, where he finished fifth. At last month's US Open his failure was in coming second.

So, instead, they sought succour in the strength of today's opposition, which would surely confirm that he will not dominate quite so easily in this major run. Well, how did they explain that his the nearest "challengers" on the Old Course were a 42-year-old, a 39-year-old and a 45-year-old? True, the world No 2 and No 5 were tied for fifth but they were seven shots behind. Meanwhile, the No 3 and the No 4 were 12 and 15 behind respectively. Actually, ditch that last word. Because there was no respect in that at all.

Well, what of the man himself then, surely he cannot believe that he is back on the level where he was winning the US Open by 15 strokes and then, four weeks later, the Open by eight? No, he does not. He declares that he is on a different level. And this is where it gets truly scary.

Because Woods does not even think he is "there" yet and he is not even sure that there is a "there". If 2000 was the peak of that particular level he was so unbeatable on, then 2005 is the mere foothill. His coach said as much yesterday when he expanded on Woods' assertion that the best is yet to come. "It's very hard for me to say if he is a more complete player than he was when he dominated in 2000," Hank Haney said. "But I do know he has more shots now than he did then."

Haney is that strangest of things - a quiet Texan without a cowboy hat. But his oddities do not stop there. Because the 49-year-old, originally from Chicago but now based in Dallas, was also the man who dared to replace Butch Harmon, change Woods' swing and then brushed off the inevitable abuse when the equally inevitable slump came to pass.

"There's never been a time when I thought that I don't need this," he said, basking in the claret jug's mystical glow. "All the criticism did was give me and Tiger the motivation to carry on to prove that the changes were going to work. Yeah, it was unrelenting at times but we've taken it and we've come through the other side. Time to look forward now, not behind."

It is worth us going back there, though, just to discover what exactly Haney and Woods did to improve on "perfection".

"I started working with him before Bay Hill in March of last year," he said, recalling how an acquaintance with Woods from his college days - not to mention Haney's previous "star pupil" Mark O'Meara, Tiger's main "buddy" - brought the two into contact and eventually in front of the drawing board.

Woods takes up the story of the mutual attraction. "I really liked his idea of the swing plane," the world No 1 revealed recently. "It was certainly a lot more detailed than I was used to. It's a totally different release. I'm basically trying to keep the club on plane from start to finish - I'll angle the club a little differently for a cut or a draw - but it's all about keeping things on plane."

If that sounds immeasurably more complicated than he makes it out to be, then that is because it most definitely was. As evidence, only now, 15 months later, does Woods have enough faith to give it a swing.

"Tiger took what he calls his 'other level' to the course here this week," said Haney. "He's had that other level on the driving range for some time and now he is finally trusting it on the course. It takes time to trust it and to use it in competition. I've urged him to get out there and hit it around. I actually told him before Pinehurst, 'You aren't going to win the US Open just trying to get it around that course. You are going to have to get out there with your good stuff.'

"At that point he really started getting committed to using his better swing. He forced himself to use it. That was a big step and he has done an even better job here. Going to Ireland before coming to St Andrews was great for his confidence because he really struck the ball great at Royal County Down. I told him there that 'the only way you don't come home with that trophy from the British Open is if you don't put in enough time on your putting'. He said, 'Hank, don't worry, we are going to put in enough time on the putting'."

Haney was daft to doubt him, as he now confesses. "It is incredible how hard Tiger tries and how he never, ever gives up," he said. "You have no idea how hard he works. He basically works 12 hours a day and not just in the run-up to tournaments but all the time.

"In fact, if Vijay really is the hardest worker in golf like they all say he is, that he works harder than Tiger, then he must have found a way to fit more than 24 hours into a day."

Those who know the Fijian say if he could then Singh would, but even that might not be enough. Because Haney has a chilling warning for Vijay and Co.

"Yes, I do think Tiger will get better," said Haney. "Golfers come into their prime in their 30s and he'll keep trying to improve.He is always going to want to keep getting better. People say: 'Is he almost there? Is he close? Is he there yet?' But I don't think there is a 'there' with Tiger. That's the great thing about him."

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