Tiger Woods: The Value of a Fine Mind

Tiger Woods won The Players Championship at the ferocious TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Florida, not only because he showed up with the best swing, but because he continued to believe that when the swing went missing.

It was a tough battle.  I mean, the golf course played tricky today.  It was fast and difficult, and I hit it so good today, it was fun.  I hit it high, low, left to right, right to left, whatever I wanted, except for that tee shot at 14.  I didn’t really miss a whole lot of shots.  I pured a lot of putts, too.  Could have been something pretty low today, just had a bunch of lip‑outs.  But they were all good putts, and we were joking on the front nine, through nine, Joey said, you might want to hit a bad putt, maybe it might go in.  So I hit one on 14 [and made double bogey].  (Laughter.)

His mistake on the 14th hole was the kind of mistake that is a stake in the heart to any hard-charging player trying to cruise to the clubhouse. He balked on his first attempt at this tee shot because a dragonfly suddenly flashed by his ball; stopped his downswing like it had industrial brakes on it. How does he do that? 

So he settled himself again, made what looked like a typically Tiger Woods dynamo swing…and hit a big looping hook far out into the pond on the left.

Tiger has a history with the 14th hole, a sketchy history. A thin bunker runs the whole way down the landing area on the left side and the pond is left of that. Over on the right side, the immediate rough is festooned with tall, quirky moguls designed to support better spectator viewing and punish players who play away from the water. You have to hit a tee shot in the fairway and the right side of the fairway for the best approach to the pin.

Thursday he hit it right of the moguls to the dirt at the edge of the grass. Friday he hit it in the right moguls. Saturday he hit it closer to the fairway, but still in the right moguls. He had an explanation for Sunday’s disaster:

The pop‑up hook, that was a shot that I was hitting early on when I was working with “Foles” [coach Sean Foley] because of the plane where I come from to where Foles wanted to get me, I would occasionally hit that shot.  When I hit it, I’m like, okay, here we go.  You haven’t hit a shot like this all week, so forget it.  I’ve been playing great all day, so be it.  Let’s make a bogey and let’s get this thing into the clubhouse.

That’s shorthand language for the years of “feels” experience that he and Foley put in trying to move that swing plane.

That may be what happened, but it doesn’t get to the real issue: why was that swing on the old plane after all those years?

The golf swing is a swinging and turning affair, a blend of two motions into one. You practice endlessly not so much to get the individual motions correct — that’s old business — but to get the timing of the blend right. Remember when Tiger was working with Butch Harmon and he was chronically working on his arms being “stuck” behind his turning body? That’s a perfect example of where the timing of those two things was off.

With a ton of practice on the range, good players get to the point that the blend, focused on a target, produces straight shots. It’s the only thing that will.

But the golf swing is a delicate thing. Just look how hard Tour pros work at perfecting them. One of the things that affects them is a lack of attention on the target (because the target orders everything) and one element of a that lack of concentration is fear. If you become afraid of a shot, say, after missing it three days in a row, it steals your concentration on the target. It becomes more about manipulating the club to get the ball safely in play when that is an anathema to the smooth blend that will cause the ball to get safely in play.

In this instance, the cause of all four of these bad tee shots was fear of the water on the left. The first three went way right because Tiger’s arms weren’t able to keep up with is turning body, a turning body that was turning toward the water. His arms weren’t able to keep up because of reticence caused by fear. I remember doing that all day long in Q-School one year; it’s not a character flaw.

So on Sunday, knowing that he had to have those arms cooking through impact instead loafing along in fear, he probably tried to “add” speed rather than “refine” the timing of the blend. Meanwhile his body is turning towards his worst fear, the water. On the way down he tries to save it from getting to impact too early, bails out of the proper plane, hits it fat (which closes the club face even more), and the ball heads out to its watery grave. I remember one of those in Q-School too; right in the dead center of the large pond.

Now Tiger may never acknowledge that he’s as human as the rest of us, but he is. The major difference is that he has a fine mind capable of compartmentalizing these fearful mistakes. He can do that because the mistakes are circumstantial not systemic. And there’s no better evidence for that than his immediately following swing on the 14th.

He and his fellow competitor determined where his tee shot crossed the margin of the hazard and he took his drop over 250 yards from the hole. He was on the narrow grassy bank between the bunker and the pond. Because the bank had a crown to it, Tiger’s feet were below the ball and it ended up being more like a baseball swing than a golf swing. Fear of the water and the moguls behind him, all his natural instincts kicked in and he absolutely smoked it.

The next shot was probably the best shot I hit all week.  It was a high inside fast ball and just turned on it and hit it up there just short of the green.

Tiger Woods is transformed. Tiger Woods plays like he’s Tiger Woods because he knows that he’s Tiger Woods. His secret isn’t so much about his swing — although it is a powerful ingredient of his success — it is that he knows that he’s better than anybody else even after hitting a loopy, amateurish shot out into the middle of a pond. He can regroup. He knows that it was an aberration, he has a short memory and he knows the next shot will be a good one.

We are none of us Tiger Woods. Thank God for his inspiring, soaring skills and achievement we have been witness to since he joined the Tour in 1996.

But even though we can’t play like him, we can take a page from his belief in himself. Even though our belief is relative to our skill set, it gives us the same fresh perspective he has to any shot we have.

Expect the best, take what you get and move on. That’s what Tiger does.

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2 Responses to Tiger Woods: The Value of a Fine Mind

  1. Dick Pallan says:

    Bill,

    We are fortunate to witnessing history.

    Tiger now has a lifetime of 78 wins on the PGA Tour out of 300 starts, equally a win percentage of 26.0%.

    My recollection is that Jack Nicklaus is around 10%. I don’t think anyone else is over 10%, but I’m not sure.

    The Tiger statistic is ONLY PGA Tour events. I have no idea what the number would be if you included all the non-PGA Tour events he’s played. Do you?

    When I was a Bostonian in the Larry Bird Celtics era, I watched nearly every game. That was because Larry Byrd was so incredible it was literally true that at any given moment he would do something I had never seen anyone do previously. Because “it” would come out of nowhere, I had to watch all the time!

    I watch golf tournaments primarily when Tiger is in the mix. At any given moment, he will do something no one’s ever done before. When’s the last time you saw a tight tournament, a leader making a double bogey on a late back-9 hole to get back to a tie, and then have the mental discipline to go on and win. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Have you?

  2. phil guarascio says:

    one of your best commentaries, bill. an articulate blend of the mysteries of the mechanics of the game and the mental elements –even for a tiger woods.
    congrats.

    and, the best explanation i’ve seen on that particular shot. now , if you want to analyze even more shots like this –follow me for 18 holes” i’ll give you enough material for 10 years worth of blogs!!