Tiger Woods: Ever The Optimist

The Memorial Tournament at Muifield Village got off to a bang on Thursday.

Charl Schwartzel seems to have gotten back in his championship groove. He shot 7-under 65 to lead by one. It all seems to have hinged on a simple putting change he made:  

I’ve been tinkering with my grip, holding the putter.  Obviously I haven’t been putting that great since Byron Nelson or for quite a bit of time of the year.  But hitting the ball good.  And started off the same thing this morning, flushed it for the first four holes and two‑putted for birdie on 11.

And hit it to four foot on 13, looked like I was going to go 2‑under and I made bogey.

Went to the next hole, changed the grip and they started pouring in.  So it worked.

He had been putting poorly with the standard putting grip, so without changing anything else, he decided to extend his right index finger down the shaft. But that didn’t turn out to be as productive over time, so when he was speaking with Mark McNulty and Nick Price on the putting green Thursday morning, two of southern Africa’s greatest players and putters, they convinced him to go back to the standard grip. And also to move the ball forward in his stance a little. (Price is captain of the International Presidents Cup team and McNulty one of his assistants, both in town to scout Muirfield Village, this year’s venue, and their prospective players.)

But the club didn’t feel as comfortable in his hands; shaky he said. So he kept the ball position the same but went back to extending his finger down the shaft.

I switched back to my finger down the shaft and sort of changed the ball position like Mark said and that felt comfortable.  As you know, putting is all about comfort at the end of the day.

Right behind Schwartzel is Scott Piercy, one of the longest players on the Tour. But he’s using his length to his advantage in a new way:

Yeah, I’ve hit a lot of drivers and kind of pounded down golf courses, and I haven’t had much success here doing it.  I thought I’d hit a lot of 3‑woods today and open up the fairways and allow me to get some pins and knock them on the greens and make some putts.  Maybe I’m getting older.

But he wouldn’t call it boring:

I’m not going to use that word.  I’ll say I was much more disciplined.  It was kind of funny how last week, I don’t normally play well in Colonial, and it’s the same sort of golf course.  I have to hit a lot of 3‑woods or 5‑woods or 3‑irons off tees.  And this is my fourth week in a row, and I was trying to build up to the U.S. Open, it’s a short golf course, so it seems like I’ve hit 3‑woods all around Colonial, all around here.

So maybe it’s getting used to it, being patient and disciplined is a good thing for The Open.

But having that kind of discipline is not all that easy for a bomber:

For me it’s difficult.  I’ll take 66 all the time, though.  It’s just learning how to play golf courses.  I can hit it over almost all the corners here.  But I have to hit a perfect golf shot and if I don’t I’m not in a very good spot.

There are four guys right behind the two of them at 5-under. Josh Teater has quietly put together a $1.2 million year with a 2nd and two other top 10s. Rookie, Russell Henley made a bigger splash with his win at Sony in Hawaii and another top 10. Long hitting Kyle Stanley finally had his breakthrough win in 2012 at Phoenix, but has been afflicted with putting woes ever since. His 3rd in New Orleans and T6 at Charlotte seem promising. Charlie Wi, Mr. Stack and Tilt swing, had a solid $1.8 million year last year, but this year he’s making cuts but not much money with just two top 25s and both of those early in the year.

Each of these guys has a compelling story when you look a little deeper and a consequent reason to pull for them.

But as always, the player who garners most of the attention, even when he shoots just 1-under, is Tiger Woods.

The thing that captured my attention this time was how optimistic he is. Some would call it confident, but I think the optimism precedes the confidence. And the thing that grabbed me was the fact that he was saying the same thing after this so-so round as he has after so many others during his swing rebuilding process:

I didn’t score very well compared to how I hit it.  I hit it pretty good.  I just didn’t make anything today.  Hopefully tomorrow I’ll make a few more putts.

And…

I hit it a lot better than my score indicates and I didn’t make much.  So maybe tomorrow I can make a few more putts and get a better score.

And…

As I was saying in there, it was probably the highest score I could have shot today.  I played a lot better than my score indicates.  Hopefully tomorrow I can cleanup, and make a few more putts and get on a roll.

But he wasn’t surprised that his putting was a little off today:

Not really.  The greens were a little bit tough this afternoon.  I don’t think there were too many low scores this afternoon.  They were a little crusty and a little bumpy.  The poa is up.  I think most of the guys in the morning went low.

What this attitude does is set a baseline for his expectations. He always expects himself to play well because his previous rounds were just “a little off,” not fundamentally flawed. As he was going through the early stages of his swing changes with Sean Foley, there was never any doubt in his mind that this would all work out for the best.

He always said that he just needed more reps…just needed to get his body healthy again…just needed to match his short game to his new swing. Even as the media pressed for some acknowledgement that it was taking too long…that it wasn’t really working…that it was a mistake to have “ruined” his swing with Foley’s changes…that perhaps, even, his meteoric career was on the brink, he never gave an inch in terms of his optimism about the process, his ability to adopt the changes and that he was hitting the ball better than he ever had. And that it was only going to get better.

So even with a big hole in his performance, he maintained his optimism, his certainty that forward was the only way to go. It allowed him to be confident even when there was sketchy evidence that he should be. Which allowed him to be more optimistic…and more confident…and more optimistic…and more confident… These two things, optimism and confidence, feed off of each other.

As we can see from where he is now, it’s not a bad way to be with the game of golf.

Not really.  The greens were a little bit tough this afternoon.  I don’t think there were too many low scores this afternoon.  They were a little crusty and a little bumpy.  The poa is up.  I think most of the guys in the morning went low.
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