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The rise and rise of the swing coach

When Tiger Woods arrived at the 2002Open, he had won seven of his previous 11 majors and his relationship with swing teacher Butch Harmon was a hotter topic than his romance with Swedish model Elin Nordegren.

Woods and Harmon were on the rocks and a breakup was assured after Harmon upset Tiger by hanging out in the fairway with his cronies during a practice round.

Splitsville was followed by a slump. Woods hasn't won a major since, producing only two top-10 finishes in eight tries.

Some say Woods misses his coach.

"I really think if Tiger had Butch," Stewart Cink said, "his waywardness would have been corrected by now."

Others say the parting was no shot to Tiger's game.

"Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods, not because of Butch," said John Cook, one of Woods' closest friends. "Tiger would have been just as good with someone else. Butch gave him direction, and Tiger took it."

The Woods-Harmon debate begs the question: How important are teachers at the game's highest level?

The answer depends on what generation a player is from. If he was born before 1970, there's a good chance a coach never scrutinized his swing.

"When I came out here, you had to work things out for yourself," said 50-year-old Jay Haas, who remains a contender this week. "What are you going to do if you lose your swing on the fifth hole? You better be able to figure it out for yourself."

Lee Trevino, considered along with Ben Hogan as one of the top two ball strikers in the game, never had a teacher. Another Hall of Famer, Tom Watson, loved to figure out his swing for himself while on the range.

Then there are the younger players who, said veteran Billy Andrade, "can't walk from the locker room to the practice tee without having four guys with them."

Charles Howell III, who has worked with David Leadbetter for half of his 24 years, doesn't mind saying he leans heavily on Leadbetter's expertise.

"The teacher is probably the most important relationship you have out here," Howell said. "David is the reason I live in Orlando. Without him, I'm not here today. I don't think it's possible to become too reliant on one person."

Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 professional majors remains Woods' ultimate pursuit, was forever linked with teacher Jack Grout. But the Golden Bear makes it clear they were never joined at the 2-iron.

"I could never put down the value that Jack Grout had to me, but I really didn't run to Jack Grout every five minutes for a golf lesson," Nicklaus said. "Today, the kids have got their coaches out there watching them warm up. I wanted to play golf; I don't want to get a lesson right before I tee off. I don't know how the guys do it. But that's the way they've grown up."

Catching up to other sports

Harmon has gotten a lot of publicity because of his work with Woods, but Leadbetter has had the greatest impact on the teaching profession. He works with more than 30 players on the PGA Tour, including Ernie Els, Nick Price, Justin Rose and Howell. Leadbetter said it was just a matter of time before coaches started playing a bigger role.

"Tennis has had instructors for years," he said. "Golf was about the only sport that didn't have proper coaching. It used to be in golf, coaching was only thought of for beginners. But through the proper understanding of the swing, the art of teaching has improved so much."

Leadbetter can relate to the Woods-Harmon breakup. A few years ago, longtime student Nick Faldo dumped him with nothing more than a letter.

"Unfortunately, sometimes the chemistry or the magic runs out," Leadbetter said. "That's what happened with Nick and myself. The player changes some, and so do you. Tiger obviously got a lot out of Butch, but it was time to move on."

Woods says he doesn't understand all the fuss. Since turning pro in 1996, he's changed agents, caddies, girlfriends and his swing while pushing his father, Earl, into the background.

"You guys make too big of a deal of this," Woods told reporters when asked about Harmon. "You don't even know who Vijay Singh's swing coach is, so how important can it really be?"

Stephen Ames and Cink said they're playing their best golf after recently committing to teachers for the first time. Cink won at Hilton Head two months ago, and Ames has been in the top 10 in five of his past six starts.

"It was just getting too hard trying to understand why I was doing things certain ways," Ames said. "(Dennis Sheehy) explained things to me that made sense."

Then there are top players such as Chad Campbell, Chris DiMarco and Jonathan Kaye -- all PGA Tour winners -- who never have had a teacher. Campbell, who many believe could become a Hall of Famer, said he relies on his caddy to keep his simple swing fine-tuned.

"He knows the things I do when I start to play poorly," Campbell said. "I can see why guys do it. You get out here and play three or four weeks in a row, you can get into a rut real easy."

Davis Love III, whose late father started grooving his swing at a very young age, relies on Jack Lumpkin to do more than work on his tempo. He helps Love with his schedule, workout routine and long- range planning.

"These guys are doing more than checking when your club is at the top of your swing," Love said. "That's why they're calling them 'coach' now instead of 'teacher.' It's so competitive out here, you have to do it all to compete."

No chance for a reunion?

For those who believe a Woods-Harmon reconciliation is likely, think again. Mark Calcavecchia, one of Woods' frequent practice partners and still a Harmon student, believes Woods should go back but knows that never will happen.

"Everybody is saying he should, and that's exactly why he won't," Calcavecchia said. "His ego is way too big for that. On the other hand, he's still the best player in the world and he'll figure it out."

Harmon makes it clear he has no desire to work again with Woods, and he's devoting more time to other students such as Darren Clarke, Justin Leonard, Adam Scott and Calcavecchia.

"The average person makes more out of it than I do. I actually enjoy the situation the way it is now," Harmon said. "Tiger is a grown man. He's made his decision and he wants to do things on his own. I have no desire to go back to spending all my time at tournaments with Tiger.

"On my watch for 10 years, he did pretty good. So it's someone else's turn to sit in that hot seat."

Phil Mickelson kidded Harmon this year not to take any calls from a 407 area code (where Woods lives). But other players have said they'd like to see a reunion, even though that might make it more difficult for them to win.

"I'd like to see Tiger and Butch get back together," Andrade said. "He obviously played well with him and he hasn't played as well without him. I'd like to see the two of them get back together and see how great he can be."

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