When Tiger Woods finally dug his feet into the sand in the fairway bunker on the right side of the ninth fairway at Club de Golf Chapultepec last Friday in Mexico City, television analyst Paul Azinger had a sense of what was coming.
Perhaps not a full appreciation of what was about to happen but at least an inkling that Woods, who had a large, leafless tree blocking his golf ball’s path to the green 135 uphill yards away, was trying to create magic.
“He’s going to go all Arnold Palmer on us here,” Azinger said.
Palmer would have applauded what Woods did – rip-slice a 9-iron around, not over, the tree, landing his ball on the green 20 feet left of the hole then pulling it back with vicious side spin so that it peeked at the hole before settling to a stop 11 feet below, all while Woods was waving his 9-iron follow-through like he was sword-fighting a ghost.
The worst that can be said is Woods missed the birdie putt. But it was the mind-bending shot that mattered.
“It’s going to be one of those Tiger shots that will be replayed forever,” veteran instructor Jim McLean said.
Any number of factors made it special but here are three that made it especially memorable:
- Woods did it with the modern golf ball, which is designed to curve less than golf balls made a generation ago. Go back 30 years and the shot was easier – not easy – because hitting big sweeping boomerang shots was simpler;
- He did it with a 9-iron, a shorter club which makes turning the ball big distances more difficult;
- And, he’s Tiger Woods.
“I don’t think many of the world’s greatest players could have done it. Maybe Phil, but he would have to hook it,” McLean said.
Maybe Bubba Watson, too.
Here’s how Woods described the shot he hit:
“The ball was sitting down just enough where I didn’t think I could clear that tree. I also had (135) yards, but it’s hard (getting the ball up in the air) when the ball’s sitting down like that. So I went back to try to cut it with an 8-iron and then I realized that’s going to come out too hot, it’s going to miss the slope,” Woods said after his second round.
“I ended up going back to the 9-iron and I realized, jeez, I’ve really got to slice this thing. So I opened up and gave it as much of a cut motion as I possibly could and it worked out.”
In a career sprinkled with brilliant swings – the 6-iron from a fairway bunker in the 2000 Canadian Open, the pitch-in on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters, the fairway bunker shot at Carnoustie’s 10th in the final round of the 2018 Open Championship come quickly to mind – this was another one.
“You have the artist and the engineer. This thing here is full blown artist,” Azinger said on television.
It wasn’t any garden-variety slice that Woods hit. It was manufactured, created from a lifetime of hitting balls and learning his own swing, understanding what works best for him.
“He took the club up then he dropped it down inside and he had to manipulate the path of the club on the downswing through his talent. That’s why he does that big old whirlybird … like Arnold Palmer used to do.” – Jerry Pate
It helped that Woods is strong enough to manipulate the club on the downswing and follow-through, which is why the swing had such a theatrical twist.
“The way I learned to cut the ball was aim way left, keep the face open and swing in your body direction, keeping the club going left,” former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate said.
“Tiger basically cut it by taking the club up then he dropped the club way inside, which is not the way to cut it. You want to be like Sam Snead or Bruce Lietzke or Craig Stadler where the club comes on the inside on the backswing and then comes on top of the plane and cuts.
“That was more face angle to cut it than swing plane. He took the club up then he dropped it down inside and he had to manipulate the path of the club on the downswing through his talent. That’s why he does that big old whirlybird where his left shoulder gets up in the air like Arnold Palmer used to do.
Not just anyone, Pate said, could do what Woods did.
“You’d better be damn talented,” Pate said.
Peter Jacobsen said was blown away when he saw it.
“He had to aim it almost a 45-degree angle from his target and the ball had to go up and right,” Jacobsen said.
“To make a ball curve in the air that much is phenomenal. Then his ball went 90 degrees from where his ball landed, it’s just incredible skill to be able to do that with the modern ball.
“Getting it up and around the tree is a great shot even if it comes up 20 yards short or 20 yards left. But to carry to the surface and jack completely to the right is one of the great shots in Tiger’s career.”
“That amount of curve and that perfect condition was a once in a lifetime opportunity that a shot would provide those opportunities. Then, hitting the perfect golf shot. It was really cool.” – Jim McLean
Part of what made the shot so spectacular was how Woods played it to the left of the tree that turned it into the green, swinging the ball 20 to 30 yards from left to right then allowing the spin to suck it toward the hole. It looked like a shot from another time.
For all that advancements in technology have done, golf balls have become more difficult to curve.
“It’s almost like a strawberry to a cue ball,” Jacobsen said, comparing rubber-based balata balls to today’s harder covers.
Nevertheless, Woods shaped his shot like a rainbow.
“It probably would have been easier to cut it more (years ago) because balls curved more back then,” Pate said. “You could curve it around a building if you knew how to curve it.
“These balls today with the dimple configurations, they don’t allow the ball to curve as much. It’s a whole different ball game.”
But it was the same old Tiger.
“That amount of curve and that perfect condition was a once in a lifetime opportunity that a shot would provide those opportunities. Then, hitting the perfect golf shot. It was really cool,” McLean said.
Tiger Woods completes a helicopter follow-through after rip-slicing a bunker shot in Mexico City. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
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