How Tiger Woods' Career Might Have Turned out Differently

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2015

Over the past 19 years, Tiger Woods has changed swing coaches more times than most golfers have changed their spikes.

For those of you not keeping a running tally, Woods is now on his fourth coach and is attempting to win on the PGA Tour with his fifth different golf swing.

Being employed as Woods’ swing coach has been just about the most insecure job in the game of golf over the past two decades. So good luck, Chris Como, and you might want to stash away some cash for a rainy day, because based on Woods’ history, that day will inevitably arrive for you.

One achievement during Woods’ career that is not often spoken about is how he has actually managed to win out on tour with four completely different golf swings. Very few players have been able to reconstruct their golf swing and come back as strong, if not stronger, than before.

But in some ways this achievement shouldn’t surprise us all that much, as we are also talking about arguably the most talented golfer in the history of the game.

Woods could have probably gone out and played left-handed between 1997 and 2008 and still won 14 major championships. He was simply that much better than his competition, no matter what swing or brand of equipment he brought to the golf course.

And this is precisely why the logic behind Woods’ swing changes has been questioned throughout much of his career.

Was Woods just a great athlete determined to continually improve himself, or did his quest for improvement become something of an obsession for perfection in a game where perfection is simply unattainable?

Whatever the reasoning may be, one thing is for sure: This quest, obsession or whatever you want to call it cost Woods five precious years of his career, three of which came right smack in the middle of his prime.

Let’s explore how things might have turned out differently for Woods had he not thrown away five years of his career to multiple swing changes.

 

Butch Harmon Swing Change

Woods’ first swing change came under the tutelage of Butch Harmon between late 1997 and early 1999.

Upon turning professional in late 1996, Woods had won 21 percent of PGA Tour events he entered and 25 percent of the majors he attended, including a 12-stroke win at the 1997 Masters.

Had Woods not undertaken a large swing change between late 1997 and early 1999, and simply repeated his 1997 performance during the 1998 season, he would have added three more PGA Tour wins (82) and one more major title (15) to his career totals.

Some look back at the swing change Woods undertook between 1997 and 1999 as the best decision of his career based on the way in which he came back and performed between late 1999 and 2002.

However, Woods was already on his way to dominating the game between 1996 and 1997. Heck, the guy had just won the Masters by 12 strokes while turning Augusta National into his own personal pitch-and-putt course.

Perhaps further experience out on tour and the continued development of Woods’ short-game and putting stroke would have led to a very similar form of dominance between late 1999 and 2002.

Either way, things began to fall into place for Woods during the 1999 season, and for the next three years, he played some of the best golf the game had ever seen.

So what did Woods decide to do after yet another major championship victory at the 2002 U.S. Open (the eighth of his career)?

Yup, he decided to change his swing again.

 

Hank Haney Swing Change

Woods fired Harmon, brought in Hank Haney and spent the 2003 and 2004 seasons going through his second swing overhaul in his first seven years as a pro.  

Between 1999 and 2002, Woods had won 35 percent of PGA Tour events and 44 percent of the majors he attended. This was of course the greatest stretch of Woods’ career, and one that was unlikely to continue forever.

For argument's sake, let's say that even if Woods had not decided to reconstruct his golf swing during the 2003 and 2004 seasons that he would have still slowed down slightly to a winning percentage of 30 percent in PGA Tour events and 40 percent in majors.

This would have added three majors (18) and five additional PGA Tour wins (87) to Woods’ record during the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

The swing change that Woods undertook between 2003 and 2004 was likely the most detrimental move of his career, as he lost two full years at the very height of his dominance.

Had Woods stayed with the swing that made him arguably the most dominant golfer the game had ever seen, there is a strong likelihood that both Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors and Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour wins would have been shattered by Woods.

Woods appeared to become comfortable with the Haney swing during the 2005 season, and between 2005 and 2008, Woods won regular PGA Tour events at a higher rate (43 percent) and won majors at virtually the same rate as he did under Harmon (42 percent).

The fact that Woods was able to win majors at virtually the same rate before and after the Haney swing change is further evidence that Woods was talented enough to dominate his competition with just about any swing imaginable.

In 2008, things began to change for Woods physically.

Following his epic 2008 U.S. Open victory while playing on a broken leg, Woods underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL and two stress fractures in his tibia.

This surgery took Woods out of action for the remainder of the 2008 season, and for much of the 2009 season, it appeared as if Woods was struggling to regain his explosiveness.

That being said, Woods still managed to win six out of the 17 PGA Tour events he attended in 2009, and even though he didn’t win a major, he came within a hair of winning the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.  

Things then began to change for Woods mentally after the 2009 season when he was involved in an embarrassing sex scandal and subsequent divorce. Woods fired Haney in early 2010 and hired one of the most technically minded swing coaches in the game, Sean Foley.

 

Sean Foley Swing Change

Woods was going through a lot of off-the-course issues during the 2010 season, and he lost several months of the 2011 season due to injuries. His swing changes under Foley began to take effect during the 2012 season, but he was winning at a much lower rate.

Woods won 23 percent of tournaments he entered between 2012 and 2013 and never really came close to winning a major championship.

Let’s chalk off the 2010 and 2011 seasons to injuries and personal matters, as Woods would have likely struggled no matter who was coaching him during this time period.

But let’s again, for argument's sake, ponder the idea that once Woods was healthy—both physically and mentally—in 2012, he would have continued winning at a rate just slightly below what we saw during the Haney years.

This would have added five more PGA Tour wins (92) and two more majors (20) to Woods’ career totals.

Some may attempt to claim that Woods faced tougher competition between 2012 and 2013, but who exactly was Woods facing off against during that time period who was better than the likes of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, David Duval, Vijay Sigh and Retief Goosen?

Rory McIlroy was nowhere near the dominant player he became in 2014, and few other players were winning with any rate of frequency.

 

Additional Swing-Change Implications

One argument in favor of Woods’ swing-change decisions through the years has been that he underwent these changes in order to better preserve his body for the future.

That may have been part of Woods’ thinking, but it is tough to believe that Woods could have possibly injured himself more between 2008 and 2014 no matter what swing he was bringing to the golf course.

It is truly amazing that Woods has been able to win at the game’s highest level with four vastly different golf swings. But was all of that even necessary?

Woods is now 39 years old and appears completely lost out on the golf course. Perhaps four different coaches in 19 years will do that to a golfer.

Obviously, no one knows how Woods would be performing right now had he not dragged his golf swing through the ringer for the past two decades.

But Woods’ performance right now is almost irrelevant, as one would have a difficult time arguing that he would not already be holding both the major championship and PGA Tour win records had he not lost five years of his career to swing changes.

Many athletes lose years to injuries and other issues they have no control over. Woods, on the other hand, knowingly tossed away five years of his career in pursuit of something that everyone knows is ultimately unattainable—the perfect golf swing.

Had Woods not allowed himself to become obsessed with the mechanics of the golf swing and simply gone out and played a game that he was significantly better than anyone else at, there would more than likely be little debate today over who is the greatest golfer of all time.

 

Unless otherwise specified, all statistics for this article came from PGATour.com.

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