- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Golf is the ultimate individual game, the player who swings the clubs bearing the responsibility for where the ball flies and how many times it is struck.
A golf coach doesn't call plays, doesn't make personnel moves. He can't even give advice during a round, per the game's rules.
So how is it that Hank Haney is to blame for Tiger Woods' woes?
Coming into the Players Championship, Woods had played a grand total of six competitive rounds of golf, with an amazing performance at the Masters followed by one of his worst ever at the Quail Hollow Championship, where he missed the cut.
Now the golf world is buzzing with speculation about Woods replacing Haney, who has worked with the game's No. 1 player since 2004 and has been in his employ while Woods won 31 PGA Tour titles and six major championships under his tutelage.
NBC analyst Johnny Miller bluntly called for a change Wednesday in a conference call with reporters to hype the Players Championship, and plenty of others have speculated that Haney's days are numbered.
"Tiger's record speaks for itself," Haney, 55, said Thursday by telephone. "If everyone wants to say it is my fault. ... People are entitled to their opinions. You can't do anything about that. But the results are what they are and the facts are what they are. What can I say?"
What Haney says is that he just received a quarterly payment, that he has not been told his services are no longer needed and that Woods is enduring a complicated time in his life that is bound to affect his golf.
What Haney does not say is that Tiger probably could do better by him in the public arena. Haney will never go there, and it's understandable, but Woods does his coach no favors by not clearing up the matter.
"I'm still working with him, yeah," is all Woods said when asked Tuesday about their relationship.
When asked about Haney after Thursday's 2-under-par 70 in the first round of the Players Championship, Woods made light of the situation.
"Hank and I talk every day, so nothing's changed," Woods said. "According to the press, I've fired him five times by now over the course of my four years or whatever it was, six years.''
That is unlikely to stop the endless speculation about Woods and his coach -- something that doesn't occur with any other player.
Then observers tried to put two and two together Wednesday when Woods played a practice round at the TPC Sawgrass with Hunter Mahan and Sean O'Hair -- both of whom work with Orlando-based instructor Sean Foley, who was walking along outside the ropes and works a short distance from Woods' home.
Maybe Woods will ditch Haney for Foley tomorrow, next week or next year.
But is a swing coach among his biggest concerns at the moment? Is a new philosophy, with majors at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews coming up, the way to go for a player who won seven times around the world in 2009 coming off knee surgery?
"He needs a new, fresh, either teacher or just go back to what is natural to his game," Miller said. "What he is working on now, I believe is ... no disrespect for Hank Haney, but it is not working. And sometimes when it is not working, sometimes you have to get off the fork in the road and get back to what brung you there and what won all these championships for him. He needs to do that, and if he was here right now, I would tell it right to his face."
With all due respect to Miller, a two-time major championship winner and a longtime golf analyst, what better endorsement of Haney could there be than for Woods to come back from major knee surgery and win six times on the PGA Tour?
After missing his only cut last year at the British Open, Woods went on this run: 1-1-2-T2-T11-1-2. He helped the U.S. Presidents Cup team to victory by going 5-0, tied for sixth at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China and then won the Australian Masters.
This season also was set up to be phenomenal. Woods won seven of his 19 worldwide starts last year, this year's majors were at favorable venues and nobody was overanalyzing Haney's work with Woods.
Then Nov. 27 happened along with revelations of marital infidelity, an indefinite leave from the game, myriad distractions, tabloid reports, rumors, embarrassment and all manner of gossip.
And three tournaments into the comeback, it is Haney's fault?
Even Woods' old coach, Butch Harmon, suggested this is about far more than swing mechanics.
"Tiger Woods is, to me, his game is in disarray," Harmon told the PGA Tour Network/Sirius XM Radio on Thursday. "There's no doubt about that. That's obvious. Anybody that plays golf can look out there and see that. That he's not Tiger Woods.
"But until he gets his head on straight and he gets his things in his mind settled, with some professional help I would add, I think it's going to be a while before we see the old Tiger Woods. He will figure out the mechanical part of it, the physical part of it. It's the mental part of it, I think, that's hurting him right now."
Miller suggested that Woods view tape of his 15-shot victory at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and try to get back to the way he played when he won three straight majors and nine times on the PGA Tour. It was an incredible year, but it also was three knee surgeries ago for Woods.
There is no denying the excellent work Harmon did with Woods from the time before he turned pro through the 2002 season. Some questioned why Woods would want to make a change, but he did. By 2004, he was working with Haney and part of the burden the instructor undertook was to alleviate the immense pressure on Woods' left knee.
Getting into swing theory is dangerous business. Who is to say what is correct? Such debates have raged for more than 100 years, and there is a reason the likes of Haney, Harmon, David Leadbetter and others become famous. There is more than one successful way to do it, and not everything works for everyone.
Yet starting with the 2005 season, Woods has won those 31 PGA Tour titles and six majors and has 57 top-10 finishes in 76 tournaments. In all that time, he's finished worse than 30th just eight times, with five of them missed cuts. (For comparison, Phil Mickelson has 15 wins and three majors, 42 top-10s and 32 finishes outside of the top 30, including eight missed cuts in 110 events dating to the start of 2005.)
Just two weeks ago, Woods reported on his own website that he made a double eagle and shot 63 at Isleworth, one of the toughest courses in the country. And then last week at Quail Hollow, Woods admitted he's had difficulty taking his game from the range to the course.
"I've had moments where I didn't hit the ball very good coming in, and you've got to turn it around," Woods said. "That's the whole idea of practicing and really working on being focused on what I'm doing and being committed to what I'm doing.
"I know what the fix is, and I've proven it to myself, and it's just a matter of going out there and executing it consistently over 72 holes."
Haney is not here this week, another fact that raised eyebrows, even though Haney is rarely with Woods on tour. He went to just four tournaments last year -- Tiger's first event after returning from knee surgery and the three U.S. majors, where he was present only for the practice rounds.
This year, Haney was with Woods at the Masters, where he tied for fourth, then not at the next two events, which is standard operating procedure.
"His clubs are the same, his coach is the same, his caddie is the same, his putter is the same. What's changed?" Haney said. "I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses. I think it's obvious that he has a lot of things going on in his life. I'm sure that if people will give him a little bit of a chance that he'll [be] back to playing golf the way he knows he can."
And if he does, will Haney get any of the credit?
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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