Tiger Woods’ former coach talks candidly about his time with the 14-time major champion, why the game is tougher for today’s club golfers, reveals the player he admires most today, and why he owes his career success to Mark O’meara.
His advice guided Tiger Woods to all four major titles during the former world No.1’s most prolific period. But then came the split, after six years of almost continual success. And then came the book, detailing his time working with arguably the most talented player in the game’s history. Hank Haney was inside the ropes when Woods took golf to a new level, and also took Mark O’meara from journeyman to two-time major champion. Now he shaves shots off the handicaps of club golfers, and that’s where we started our chat...
Now that you are not teaching full time, what are you up to these days?
I’m doing a lot of radio shows. I did 275 shows for Sirius XM PGA Tour radio last year. I enjoy that a lot. My career has really gone full-circle. First I helped average players. Then I helped tour pros. Then I worked with Tiger. Now I’m back helping the average player. Last year I also did clinics for over 15,000 people. But I don’t touch private lessons. My last one-on-one lesson was with Tiger at the 2010 Masters.
Do you miss anything about your former life?
I really don’t. I’d always said Tiger would be my last student. I mean, where do you go after Tiger Woods? I coached arguably the greatest player in history during the most prolific time of his career. Nothing can beat that. Anything else would pale in comparison to that.
Throw in all the years I had with Mark O’meara and I had a pretty good run. When I teach clinics I’m with big groups so I reach a lot of people. I’m on Twitter, where I have almost 150,000 followers. I have 250,000 people listening to me on the radio every day. So I feel I am reaching the masses at this point in my career.
Are golfers getting better with all the science that is out there these days?
I think people are getting a lot better. The scores may not be changing much, but the courses today are so much harder than they were in the past. If you do nothing other than speed up the greens, you make the game much more difficult.
And there’s more than that going on now. The greens are effectively smaller. Chipping is harder. Pitching is harder. Putting is way harder. That’s a big factor. Yes, I know the ball goes farther. But if you speed up the greens in your club championship, no one is playing to their handicap.
It’s not an even fight. Let’s say a course is 10 per cent longer than it was. That’s going to make it harder even with all the modern equipment. Everyone gets older. Everyone gets slower. So in theory you are not supposed to get better. If you stay the same you are improving.
The big thing is the short game though. Greens now are mowed much closer than before. And look at the surrounds. I get that it has always been that way in Scotland – which is why people putt so much from off the greens – but chipping is so much more difficult today with the lies so tight.
Why are we trying to make the game more difficult?
Everything follows what the pros do. They have shaved fairways and, as a result, every club follows suit. Superintendents [greenkeepers] seem to think that is the way it’s supposed to be. One good thing is that I see more American amateurs putting from off the green and that’s carried into the PGA Tour – I see more of that on the circuit too. More than I have ever seen before.
There are more cases of chipping yips than ever before, too.
No doubt about that. It’s hard to ignore that fact. The bad news is that the turf conditions and the close-mixing have got people yipping more. But the good news is they can adjust to putting more. I just wish more people in the States would figure that out. There’s nothing wrong with putting from off the green. You Scots figured that out a long time ago. Over here they are still trying to chip, even when they can’t.
That’s a problem in golf. They took the long putter away from the guy who yips. Now they mow the grass closer for the guy who yips around the greens. It’s not good.
What I can’t get my head round is why ‘non-tour’ courses do all that. Why aren’t they making their greens a bit slower and their surrounds a bit grassier? That would let people chip more easily and have more fun.
I don’t get it either. Maybe they don’t think like that because they are not golfers and don’t think like golfers. Maybe those running things are better players. I cringe when I hear people saying how great it is that the grass is cut down around the greens. Because it gives players “all kinds of options”. It doesn’t. It gives them one option: putting. The idea that you have all these options is ludicrous.
“I got letters saying they were bigger Tiger fans after reading the book on him”
Let’s talk about your book, The Big Miss in which you talked a lot about your time with Tiger. Did you lose any
friends in the wake of publication?
I’m not sure. I did lose some who didn’t even read the book. But I made that calculation before I started. I wanted to write a good book and I think I wrote a great book, with a lot of help from Jaime Diaz. I felt strongly that these were my memories too, not just Tiger’s. He didn’t have a patent on those memories. Whatever the consequences, I was fine with it. The best thing about it was that the comments from Tiger fans were very positive. That told me I wrote a very fair book.
It seemed to me that it was basically a golf book.
Exactly. That is the point many missed at the time. But that has changed as the years have gone on. I seem to have become more and more right (laughs).
How do you answer the claim that a golf instructor is like a doctor and so there is client/teacher privilege?
(laughs) That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. A golf instructor is not a doctor, or a lawyer. I’m a coach. And I’m not the first coach to write a book. So were all those other guys not supposed to write books either? Or am I the only one who was not supposed to? Phil Jackson (former LA Lakers and NY Knicks basketball coach) has written many books. A lot of great coaches have, in every sport, so I never understood that logic. Books always start out controversial. Publishers always leak excerpts that are out of context. They get the most titillating bits out there. So it sounds way worse than it actually is. I understand that. My motivation was just to write a good book.
Any reaction from Tiger?
(laughs) No. But the reaction from the fans was that they loved it. I got many letters to say that they were bigger Tiger fans after reading the book. That was always the reaction I wanted to get.
How do you feel about where Tiger is now? I watched him in person in Dubai earlier this year and he could hardly walk never mind play.
He’s always had a bit of weird gait. He ‘hikes’ his hip when he walks. He’s always done that. But this was worse and it didn’t look good. After the Hero World Challenge at the end of last year I thought he looked incredibly enthusiastic. And he looked good physically. He’d lost weight. Then a few months later he was huge again. He had bulked up. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going on here?’
Just as importantly, he also looked incredibly unenthusiastic. Maybe he just knew he wasn’t going to make it. Maybe he knew he was in bad shape. You never know because he never tells us anything or what the truth is. But for a guy who was being paid a lot to be there, he didn’t look like he wanted to be there.
So I went from thinking he could come back and play some good golf to hoping he can do what Fred Couples does and play only when his back is feeling okay. But that doesn’t answer the enthusiasm question. When your game is that far down you have to take time and effort to build it back up. Tiger has always been very technical, so I’m not sure he can play without practising. I don’t know how he can do that, especially when his game is in such disarray.
Everybody keeps asking when he will play again. But the last time he played and the last times he has played, he has played awful. His statistics are horrendous. He is near the bottom of nearly every category. Worst in chipping. Worst in driving accuracy. Go down the list. It’s one thing after another. Even after he supposedly fixed his chipping, he was last on the PGA Tour in scrambling. His game is so far gone I’ve gone from encouraged to fearing the worst. He looks big and he looks tired.
I try to divorce his character, behaviour and everything else from his golf. In a playing sense, we all want him to come back. It’s sad to see him like he is.
It’s not something we ever pictured seeing. I wish he wouldn’t play like this.
When you were with him, how much better was he than everyone else?
So much better. I used to watch him on the range and think there was just no way anyone could ever beat him. And even when they did, it shouldn’t have happened. It was like Rory Mcilroy at Bay Hill this year. He had four three-putts and seven penalty shots and lost by two. Are you kidding me? He should have won that event by a mile. And that’s the sort of thing Tiger would do when he didn’t win.
I hear people talking about the players today. They call them superstars and this and that. I laugh. I mean, come on. You have to go by the record. I give Jordan Spieth a pass because of his age – he could become a superstar. But other than him, I only see one real superstar and that’s Rory. All this “big four”, “big three” and “big five” stuff is nonsense.
“Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose – They’re all the same player”
There does seem to be a big gap between the top-six and the rest.
True. But take Henrik Stenson. He’s Adam Scott. He’s putted well enough to win one major. That’s Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose. They’re all the same player.
Don’t get me wrong, they are great players, but Henrik winning the Open doesn’t mean I think he’s getting ready to run off another five majors. He didn’t become a great putter the day he won the Open. Just because Adam made a couple of putts at Augusta doesn’t mean he knows how to putt. Matsuyama is the same way. Statistically, he is a poor putter and a great ball-striker. He hasn’t won a major but he is in that category, too. Dustin Johnson is a better putter than people give him credit for. He doesn’t three-putt a lot. His memorable threeputt at Chambers Bay skews people’s perception of him. He was 49th last year in three-putt avoidance so he doesn’t piss away many shots. And in 2015 he was 12th in that category.
My theory is that the full swing is more of a science than it has ever been. But you can’t apply that approach to putting. It remains an art. That’s why
the guys are better at hitting the ball than they are at putting.
Hard to argue with that theory. I wonder if guys don’t spend enough time putting. It’s not as technical or sexy. Do they want to play around with computers or go and putt for a few hours on their own? Golfers are much more technical now, but it doesn’t lead to great putting. That’s why Jordan stands out. He’s a throwback to how golf was played in the past.
Do you prefer teaching professionals or amateurs?
With pros you have more talent. With the amateurs you often have a more workable attitude. Pros are more difficult because it’s not just what you tell them, it’s can you get them to do it? It’s no coincidence that the coaches with the most experience – myself and Butch Harmon – did the best with Tiger. All the young “geniuses” struggled. You can have great ideas, but they are no use if the player won’t apply them. Coaching greatness is way more difficult than coaching a beginner. And the average player is much closer to a beginner than he is a tour pro.
What was the most important lesson of your life? The first with Mark O’meara?
Absolutely. Everything that has happened to me in golf and life – which has been incredible – would not have happened if I hadn’t met Mark. Without him, I’m not sure I would have achieved anything in the game. It was the luckiest moment of my life – one I have taken advantage of.
When I met him, he was 124th on the Money List. And now he is in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
I’ve had great results with others, though. The Kuehne family, for example. Kelli won two US Amateurs and a British Amateur. Hank won the US Amateur and was an All-american. Trip was Allamerican too, got to the final of the US Amateur and won the Mid-amateur. In the amateur game, they were all great. I felt like my work with Tiger was great, too. He had a great record with Butch, but from a win-percentage standpoint he did even better with me. But Mark is the student I am most proud of.
How much credit should a coach get?
Not that much. We don’t hit any shots. We don’t make any putts. We’re not out there competing. At the end of the day, it’s all the player – not the coach. The credit we should receive is incredibly low.
Let’s talk about the PGA Tour. My fear is that, if we ever have a World Tour, they will be solely in charge. What do you think? Good or bad?
I think a World Tour will be great for the game. Someone is going to do it too. But would it be bad if the PGA Tour led the way? I’m not sure. And I would say the same if the European Tour was to be in charge. I still think that would be good for the game overall, though.
Ideally, I’d like to see a worldwide collaboration and coordination. There is too much fragmentation right now. It’s never going to be perfect, but working together more has to be the way ahead.
What did you make of the recent rule changes?
Not enough. And not fast enough. But that’s what you would expect from the R&A and USGA. The only things that got them to move this quickly were the debacles in last year’s US Open and US Women’s Open. So we have to wait for more debacles to get change. Then we have a year of debating the debacles. Then we have a year to write the new rules. Then we spend a year talking about what has just been written. It’s a long process.
It reeks of keeping themselves in jobs.
It does. And it isn’t as if they view the latest changes as just a good start and that things will be better next year. This is it, the whole revamp. Until the next debacle of course. I play a game called “pickleball”. It’s the fastest growing sport in America. It’s like a version of tennis and ping-pong and paddle-ball. You play on this small court and there are maybe five rules. Everyone understands them the first time they play. Wouldn’t it be great if golf was like that? But it isn’t. What did they make simpler this year? Not much I’d say.
Specifically, what did you like/dislike?
Basically all they have done is say that
the rules everyone plays by already are going to be “real”. So when you hit the ball in the desert or into the woods and lose it, you drop another ball right there and play on. Which is what everyone did anyway. So that’s a good change. No one looks for five minutes then walks back to the tee.
Who do you most enjoy watching these days?
(laughs) I enjoy two parts of the game. I enjoy it when people hit great shots and I enjoy it when people struggle and I can analyse why. I love to talk on the radio about what went wrong and why. As someone who has built a life around diagnosing things, that is enjoyable. I like to make sense of what is happening.
If we give Tiger 10-out-of-10, who is the best player now and what is his score?
I think the best player is Dustin Johnson. That’s not in question right now. I’d give him nine-out-of-10.
Really? He’s that close to Tiger?
Nine is a long way from 10 (laughs). There are a lot of nines. But not many 10s.
Johnson is the best current player, according to Haney – a nine to Woods’ 10.
There was no Woods reaction to his former coach’s book about their work.
Haney classes Stenson with other major men Rose and Scott.