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Hank Haney becomes coach of the moment

Hank Haney never asked to be in the spotlight.

This was one time he didn't mind it.

Tiger Woods took the claret jug through a side door to begin a long list of obligations as the British Open champion. Haney, who had quietly watched his pupil from behind the ropes at St. Andrews, tried to leave the interview area unnoticed when he suddenly found himself surrounded by reporters.

Only this time, the Dallas-based swing coach didn't feel as though he was being grilled on the witness stand.

The questions shifted from ``What on earth have you done?'' to ``How did you do it?'' And now that Woods has won two of the first three majors, ``How close is he to fully grasping the swing changes?''

``He's not going to ever be satisfied with getting there,'' Haney said. ``He's not looking for 'getting there.' He's looking for getting better. That's what he looks for every day.''

Whatever it is, Woods appears to have found it.

The guy who went 10 majors without a victory -- matching the longest drought of his career -- again seems to own them. He won the Masters by hitting his two best shots of the day on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. He combined his best ball-striking with his worst putting at the U.S. Open and finished second.

Then, he became the first wire-to-wire winner at the British Open in 32 years, opening with a 66 and leading over the final 63 holes with utter control over the Old Course.

Asked on the BBC if he had a message for those who questioned why he would change a swing that made him No. 1 in the world by a mile, Woods said it was nothing he could repeat on air, even in Britain.

Moments later, he dropped a not-so-subtle hint.

``First, second and first in the last three majors,'' Woods said. ``That's why.''

If it was validation for Woods, it must have felt like vindication for Haney.

Every major that went by with someone else holding the trophy, every tee shot by Woods that sailed deep into the trees brought with it an explanation that invariably included Haney's name. One player joked that with the PGA Tour headed into negotiations for a new television deal -- and contracts are helped when Woods is playing his best -- he might sue Haney for loss of wages.

Inside Woods' camp, the swing changes were so private that Woods refused to discuss what he was working on, and he more than once asked his caddie to place the golf bag in front of television cameras that tried to capture the swing. Haney went so far as to tell Woods to keep their relationship quiet as long as he could.

Some would argue that it's stealing money to be the swing coach of the No. 1 player in golf.

Haney would tell you otherwise.

He noted that when Woods overhauled his swing in 1998 and went 10 majors without a victory, he was given two years for all the work to take hold.

``And they gave me two minutes,'' Haney said.

Every time Haney watched highlights of Woods' round, the pictures would show Woods swinging hard, pointing his right arm out to the side and screaming, ``Fore!'' The criticism bothered him.

``I know it comes with the territory,'' Haney said. ``The only person I'm worried about pleasing is Tiger.''

He first met Woods casually through his work with Hank Kuehne. Haney also works with Mark O'Meara, Woods' best friend on tour, so there were plenty of occasions for pre-dawn practice rounds. Woods and Haney loved to talk golf, particularly the swing, and Woods became intrigued by Haney's concept of keeping the club on one line.

Woods formally asked for his help in March 2004, and the timing was peculiar.

It was right after Woods won the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa, which turned out to be his only victory of the year on the PGA Tour. Haney wasn't the least bit nervous.

``If Tiger Woods calls you up on the phone and asks you to help him,'' Haney said, ``you've got to think he thinks you know something.''

Woods kept telling everyone the changes to his swing affected all aspects of his game, from his driver to the distance control on his sand wedge. The most frustrating part was hitting the ball so pure on the range, then being unable to bring that game to the course.

Haney finally got after him a few weeks ago, and told him to start trusting his swing. Woods did just that at St. Andrews, and he gushed how he had never hit the ball so flush in a final round. What must have been even more satisfying was hearing the words of Jack Nicklaus, who watched the final round from his home in Florida.

``That is the best I have seen Tiger swing -- perhaps ever,'' Nicklaus said.

The victory put Woods just past the turn in his quest to break the Golden Bear's record of 18 professional majors. The British Open gave him the double Grand Slam with his 10th major. But what thrilled Woods as much as that shiny claret jug was the game he played to get it.

``The drive is always to get better,'' he said. ``And that to me is exciting, that no matter how good you get, you can always be better.''

No doubt it was exciting to Haney. Maybe even more.

 

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