Tiger Woods didn't make history at Royal Birkdale. He didn't
join Old Tom Morris or James Braid or Peter Thomson on the list
of legendary British Open champions. Mark the occasion on your
calendar anyway. Something significant happened at the 127th
Open Championship: Tiger Woods took a giant step forward in his
evolution as a golfer.
Woods left Southport, England, a better player because he
finally abandoned grip-it-and-rip-it golf, a style he had
employed ever since he dominated last year's Masters with the
long ball. "He had gotten into trying to hit it higher," says
Butch Harmon, Woods's swing coach, "and because he was playing
so well and had so much confidence, he got away with it."
The weather dictated the style of play at Birkdale. Low,
wind-cheating knockdown and three-quarter shots were mandatory.
Woods adjusted beautifully. He rarely hit a shot at warp-nine
power. As a result, he went into the final round with a chance
to win, and he made the most of it, shooting a 66 to finish just
one stroke out of the Mark O'Meara-Brian Watts playoff. Woods's
long game didn't cost him--he simply missed too many short putts
when the wind was howling last Friday and Saturday.
The easy, controlled swings Woods made at Birkdale were similar
to those he used so effectively to win the second of his three
U.S. Amateurs, at hard-baked Newport (R.I.) Country Club in
1995. At Birkdale the new-old style paid off with an opening 65
that tied John Huston for the lead. "It looked as if Tiger
throttled back a bit, which is good to see," says Nick Price,
who played with Woods last Thursday. "The only time I saw him go
hard all day was a two-iron into 15. He had 241 yards and hit it
six or seven yards past the pin. A year ago he went full-bore
A year ago? How about two months ago. When Woods won the
BellSouth Classic in May, he came to the 11th hole on Sunday, an
intimidating 193-yard par-3 over a lake, with a one-shot lead. A
six-iron was the club of choice, but Woods opted for an
eight-iron. He swung out of his shoes and pulled the ball badly.
It came to rest on the side of a hill, and although Woods would
go on to make a spectacular par, the shot demonstrated the same
lack of discipline that resulted in big numbers last year in the
U.S. Open at Congressional, the British Open at Royal Troon and
the PGA at Winged Foot. The image of Woods vainly slashing a
two-iron from Troon's nasty rough came to define the second half
of his '97 season.
Now, though, those scenes are becoming few and far between.
"There's a great change in the way he plays," Harmon says.
"Tiger learned so much from [the British Open] last year. He
lost to Justin Leonard by 12 shots despite going 10 over par on
three holes. Tiger has worked to lower his trajectory. He
switched to a graphite-shafted driver because it makes his ball
fly a little lower. We've done things not just for here, but so
he can control his distance all the time."
Woods was swinging in slow motion, by his standards, at
Birkdale, as were long hitters such as Fred Couples and Davis
Love III, who didn't become consistent winners until they fell
out of love with how far they hit the ball. Are you listening,
John Daly? "Those guys don't need distance," says Harmon. "They
need to put the ball in play. Length is a big advantage if used
properly. When Greg Norman learned how to control his distance
and accuracy, he became one of the greatest drivers we've ever
Woods is too intelligent not to stick with what worked at Royal
Birkdale. His patience was tested there at times, especially
during his windswept 77 in the third round, but he stayed with
his game plan. From now on, expect him to swing as hard as he
can less often and be in position to win more. "It's an
evolution every player goes through," Woods says. "It's learning
how to play golf. Ask players in their teens or early 20s. They
hit the ball pretty hard. As they get older, they learn to
control their games."
Says Price, "[Woods] will mature. If he continues to improve,
he's going to be a pretty good player by the time he's 30."
Price, realizing how absurd that statement sounded, laughed when
he finished. It seemed like nervous laughter.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [Tiger Woods playing golf]
We can expect him to swing as hard as he can less often and be
in position to win more.