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Chatting with Tiger's teacher at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy in S.C.

Jennifer MarioBy Jennifer Mario,
Hank Haney atIJGA
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Hank Haney is part-owner of the junior golf academy that now bears his name. (Jennifer Mario/WorldGolf.com)

BLUFFTON, S.C. - The first time Hank Haney worked with Tiger Woods, something strange happened. After just five or 10 minutes of working together, Haney looked around to find the world's best golfer sitting in the golf cart. "'What are you doing?' I asked him. He said, 'I'm just thinking about what we did.'"

"He does that all the time," Haney says of Woods. "We might work on something for a few minutes, then he'll stop and just think about it for a while. He's just different. He processes things so well."

But even though Haney's students are worlds apart in talent and accomplishments, he sees little difference in coaching Tiger Woods or any of the 142 teenaged students at the golf academy that now bears his name: the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy (IJGA) in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

"It's the same fundamentals, the same process, the same approach. I understand when people say 'Wow, Tiger's so good, what could you change with him?' But he's got plenty to get better. Everybody does."

Haney turns back to his students, two elite junior golfers at the IJGA. He studies Luciano Garcia for a few minutes. The high school sophomore, a recent recipient of the prestigious Byron Nelson International Junior Golf Award, tees up his ball and sends it flying into the distance with a 5-wood. To the average observer, it appears to be a powerful, flawless swing.

But Haney isn't satisfied. Without a word, he stands behind Luciano, positions his arms just so, rotates his torso, turns his wrist over. He moves around to the front, manipulating Luciano's hands and arms to demonstrate exactly where the club should be through the finish. "Can you feel that?" he asks. "Do it just like that."

Garcia does, smoothly.

"Again," commands Haney. "And now again. That's what it should feel like."

"I try to stay away from 'do this, do that,'" says Haney. "A swing thought is here today, gone tomorrow. I try to give them a picture of the whole feeling that they should have, and then also a picture in their mind of what it should look like. That's how I teach."

Haney now owns a home in the area and spends a week out of every month here. That's one week a month away from Tiger, away from his home in the Dallas area, and though she occasionally accompanies him, away from his wife Jerilynn, whose health issues last year had Haney spending time away from his star pupil, leading to speculation that their relationship had soured.

But their relationship hadn't soured; it had grown to a point where Tiger could be his own best teacher, a goal that ultimately Haney strives for with all of his students. And with Haney's move to the IJGA last July, he went from having just one student - Tiger - to having 143.

In their four years of working together, Haney has spent more than 100 days a year with Tiger. They get together for several weeks before the season begins and after every break; Haney remains with him in the weeks leading up to and during every major, plus several other tournaments. But Haney hopes, paradoxically, that the time they spend together will eventually decrease. He doesn't seem concerned about coaching himself out of a job.

"Hopefully each year it'll be less and less because he's getting a lot better at figuring things out for himself. That's the goal. My goal as a teacher is to help my students become their own best teacher."

In fact, as Haney talks about his work with Tiger, it's not the 25 victories they've shared that he brings up. It's not even the five majors Tiger has won since Haney first began coaching him in March of 2004, or the $41 million Tiger has earned in winnings. No, it's Tiger's self-sufficiency that Haney is most proud of.

"As a teacher, I'm proud of how well he's done. I'm proud of the fact that he's shown improvement. It's taken a long time but most people are finally admitting that," says Haney, referring to the many questions Tiger faced back in 2004 when he began working, quietly, with Haney. Those questions have since been answered, as Tiger has had several of his most dominant seasons ever.

"He's better than he's ever been," says Haney. "But the thing that I'm most proud of is when he says 'I'm getting good at figuring things out for myself. On the golf course when things go wrong I can piece it back together.'"

So why has Haney added a junior golf academy to his slate of projects? Wasn't teaching the world's best golfer enough? Haney is quick to point out that he isn't at the school in name only. He refused to be involved unless, as he says, "I can spend meaningful time with all the kids. I told them I'm not going to do this if you only want to use my name." Nor is he hired help; Haney's fully invested as a part owner in what he describes as a "great business." The hardest part, he says, is learning all the names.

"You feel like you have an opportunity to have a positive impact on somebody's life. Not just golf. I always think there are more important things than just the golf swing and the mechanics. When you're dealing with young people, you have a lot of responsibility and a great opportunity. It makes it a lot of fun. Because golf has been so good to me, it's good to have an opportunity to pass it on a little bit."

And what's his motivation - is he trying to create the perfect player - another Tiger, maybe? "No," he says. "Because to be honest, I already teach that person."

Haney watched as Tiger's goal of a Grand Slam disappeared at the Masters, as Trevor Immelman swept the field and won the green jacket with a three-stroke victory. He watched as Tiger collected hugs from his wife and baby daughter, Sam, and moved aside to let the golfer spend time with his family.

"When I talk to him," says Haney, "I'll just tell him the same thing that I always tell him, that I'm proud of him and how he did. It's hard to win a major tournament. You have to have a lot of things go your way. You hit great shots but you have to be fortunate too, and sometimes that just doesn't happen."

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Hank Haney with Student

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Tips from Hank

    KLDQ wrote on: May 7, 2008

    Jen, How cool to be getting tips from Hank Haney - you go girl! Great article!