Last month at the Masters, Tiger Woods' golf swing was a mess. Whatever strides he had made during his win a couple weeks earlier at Bay Hill seemed like faint memories as he went around Augusta National in a sad 2-over par for the week. His tie for 40th was his worst finish at Augusta as a pro.
During a week in which he went only 2 under on the par-5s, the four-time Masters champion was haunted by his old swing, the one crafted by a man who had just released a tell-all book about their six-year relationship. You could see Tiger's frustrated attempts to fight off the last vestiges of Hank Haney's lessons. Woods' swing coach, Sean Foley, could be there on the range to try to correct those old habits, but he couldn't be on the golf course in the thick of things when his player had to hit real shots.
Tiger couldn't have been surprised a few weeks after the Masters by the comments from another ex-coach, Butch Harmon, who said his former pupil looked "robotic" and that he was playing "golf swing," not golf. Harmon wants the man who he helped win eight majors to "feel" his way around the course more, something more akin to the attitude that carried Bubba Watson to his first green jacket.
Woods is playing in his first tournament since that Masters disappointment this week at Quail Hollow. On Monday, he took questions from his fans via social media. He said he had resolved the swing issues that plagued him in Augusta.
"At the Masters, I was kind of struggling with my ballstriking a little bit," Woods said. "Sean and I fixed it. It had to do with posture. My setup wasn't quite right, as well as my takeaway, so we worked on that."
I was standing behind the Augusta National range on that Friday night after Tiger shot a miserable second-round, 3-over 75. I saw him hit dart after dart into a dark sky. His posture and takeaway didn't look any different than it had at Bay Hill. Obviously, with the golf swing we're dealing with, little subtleties aren't always easily perceptible to the naked eye. Woods shouldn't try to explain his poor performance through an examination of a few minor swing flaws. Tiger is too good for that. He's won too many tournaments to make his swing bear the burden of his inconsistencies as a ball striker.
Alec Wilkinson, a longtime New Yorker contributor, had the late jazz bassist Jimmy Garrison as his faculty adviser when he was a student at Bennington College in the early 1970s. Wilkinson once heard the former John Coltrane quartet member say: "First you have to learn all about your instrument, then you have to learn all about music, then you have to forget it all and learn how to play."
Tiger has had great teachers, from his father, Earl Woods, to Rudy Duran to John Anselmo to Harmon to Haney to his present teacher, Foley. In their own ways they have all helped Tiger's progression as the best player of his era. There isn't a better student of the game than Tiger. He probably has forgotten more about the golf swing than most people ever learn about the mysteries of the game.
But as Garrison so astutely put it about jazz, it's time for Tiger to lay aside all the swing theory and learn how to play. Harmon said as much in a Wall Street Journal interview.
"If he ever asked me what I thought he needed to do, I'd tell him, look, go on the practice tee without anybody -- without me, without Sean, without Haney, without a camera, and start hitting golf shots," Harmon said. "Hit some high draws, some low draws, high fades, low fades, move the ball up and down, move it around; don't worry about how you do it and go back to feeling it again."
I know Foley wants this for Tiger. No good teacher worth his salt wants his player standing over the ball in a pressure situation with a million swing thoughts running through his head.
But Woods has to come to this realization on his own. The more weight he puts on his swing, the farther he gets from finding the real answers to his problems. He doesn't need me to tell him the importance of the mental game -- no one has had a better mind game over the years than Woods -- but I think he's being dishonest with himself to deny that his confidence as a player and a person has been shaken over the years by his injuries and personal travails and disappointments in big tournaments.
Perhaps the golf swing has become a convenient way to deflect attention from some of the larger issues in his life. During Masters week, I heard another reporter say of Woods: "It must be hard for him to play well carrying around all that anger."
Even Jack Nicklaus, who has mostly praised the man trying to break his record of 18 majors, has questioned Tiger's mental game since the Masters.
"I don't know what goes [on] between his ears," Nicklaus said. "That's really the X factor. His golf game and his golf swing look pretty similar to what I've been looking at and he hits a lot of great shots. But you never know what's going on in somebody's head."
We probably won't ever know what's going on inside Tiger's head. His swing is as close as we might come to knowing the inner workings of his mind. When he's happy with his swing and winning tournaments, we can suppose, he's happy with his life. Right now that's a fleeting happiness, a tenuous hold on a game that took just two weeks to break down between Bay Hill and the Masters.
Yet thanks to the PGA Tour, Woods has a tournament this week at Quail Hollow to try to make amends for his embarrassing performance at the Masters. He can answer all of his critics who say he's done or he can affirm the predictions of his believers who say he'll make it back to No. 1 in the world.
Tiger won at Quail Hollow in 2007 and he loves the course. It's possible that it's true he has indeed "fixed" his swing, but he's never going to find that mythical perfect swing or some major resolution about his game by winning this week, as long as he takes the perspective that his issues lie primarily with his swing.
Earl Woods was a big jazz fan. He exposed his son to the music at an early age. I'm sure the elder Woods knew of Jimmy Garrison and John Coltrane. He probably didn't know about the advice that Garrison gave his Bennington students, but it's a gem he might share with his son if he were alive.
Tiger's been to the mountaintop because he absorbed everything about the game, then put it into action. Now, maybe it's time for him to store all that knowledge away and play like he's not afraid to hit a bad shot or hit a putt too far past the hole.
This week in Charlotte, N.C., he could find the will to forget it all and learn how to play.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.