Tiger Woods: When He’s On, It’s Magic

Tiger Woods put on quite a show in the second round of his Northwestern Mutual World Challenge. He shot one of the easiest looking 62s you’ll ever see, hitting every fairway and every green. It gave him a two-stroke lead over Thursday’s leader, Zach Johnson. His playing companion, Graeme McDowell, summed it up:

It was a clinic. It was cool to see that kind of golf. He was under control. He hit it down the middle of every fairway. He didn’t have that kind of violence with his speed through the ball. I enjoyed that.

Even then, you still need a little luck or great talent and Tiger had both on the par-5 13th hole. He went for it in two and ended up in the greenside bunker which normally would be a routine matter. Not this time: 

I had one of those acorns right behind the golf ball, and unfortunately it was right where I’m going to be entering the sand, and I basically played it like a buried lie and figured if I just slammed down that acorn it was probably going to explode. I felt that if I could just get the ball out of the bunker playing it as a buried lie shot that it would just roll down to the hole somewhere inside 10 feet. And it rolled down there to about three feet [and he made the birdie putt].

He made 10 birdies, tying his own course record. But it didn’t really seem like it was going to work out that way.

It’s just one of those things where I felt good on the golf course but I didn’t warm up well.  I didn’t hit the ball well at all warming up.  It wasn’t very good at all.  Seemed like I just stick to what I’ve been working on, and it should turn around, and birdied the first two right out of the gate, and I said, okay, let’s keep it going.  The third hole was important because I striped it in there, and from there on it was pretty good.

He thought that this sort of solid play just might be in the offing after his tournament in Turkey:

Yeah, you know, I think that I did take a pretty extended break after Turkey and didn’t really do much, but I just thought that I played pretty well there, and I just wanted to keep building on it.  If I could have just made a few more putts, I thought I could have won that event. And I thought I was hitting the ball well enough to do well here.

Here’s a measure of just how well. Here he talks about missing it in the correct spot, but he’s not talking about missing greens, he’s talking about missing the shot on the green by twenty feet instead of ten:

Today was, I think, an example of that.  I left myself in some good spots.  That’s the key.  The key to this golf course is you have to miss the ball in the correct spots, and when I did miss, it was 20 feet in the correct spot, and when I hit it good, it was under 10 feet but still in the correct spot.

As I said, I only made a couple downhill putts that were breaking.  Most of the putts were in the correct spots [as in straight up the fall line of the green].

Since so much of the day had been about his solid putting, he was asked what it was about great players that allowed them to make the big putts under pressure?

I can’t speak for other players, but I can speak for myself.  I enjoy being there.  I enjoy having that opportunity, whether I make or miss.  Just being in that position is fun.  I remember talking to [Michael Jordan] a number of times; he’d much rather have the opportunity to hit the game winner, win or lose, and you can accept the responsibility for it.

I relish being in that position, accepting whether I win or lose, just being in that spot.  That’s why you practice, that’s why you train, and that’s why I’ve put in all those hours to put myself in that spot.

Okay, that kind of objectivist thinking is fine. But has failure ever entered the great Tiger Woods’ mind?

Absolutely.  Oh, yeah.  It’s going to be one of the two, you either make or miss.  (Laughter.)  Might as well try and make the thing.

That sort of dispassionate thinking surely must help to free him up when he’s over a putt:

Sometimes it does.  Other times the situation and scenarios, sometimes the putts are — I could make it but then again, if I run it by, [1] the guy is playing right behind me, [2] the scenario where is he off the tee, [3] blah‑blah‑blah, [4] are you posting a number [to put pressure on the guys playing behind you].

There’s so many scenarios you’re running through [in your mind] that I’ve experienced.  It’s not just, okay, I can free reign and roll a putt in the back of a hole and don’t worry if it goes five, six feet by.  [The chessboard] scenarios dictate a lot of times what speed you hit the putt at.

We all seem to remember the great shots Woods has hit, but there aren’t too many highlight reels of the great putts he’s made. The most pressure he ever felt over a putt?

Probably the putt at Valhalla [to get into a playoff in the 2000 PGA Championship with Bob May].

The other big one everyone remembers was the putt he made in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines to get into a playoff the next day with Rocco Mediate. Amplified, of course, by the fact that we find out later that he was playing on a broken leg.

The putt at Torrey was hard because it was bumpy, and I had to get it through some bumpy spot and put a little spin on it.  But the putt at Valhalla, I’m going for three majors in a row that year.  I think I can put myself in another position to win a U.S. Open, which I have, but to win three majors in a row doesn’t happen very often.  It’s only happened, professional majors, to two guys, and I’m one of them.  That was a big putt, and that was just to give myself a chance.

There was another masterful answer that went right to the heart of how the great players play. Just exactly what does he think about when he’s standing over a shot?

Well, just shape the shot, just trying to figure out what shape I’m going to hit it in.  Today the wind was down most of the day.  We didn’t have much of a breeze until the very end it started to puff up a little bit.  But it was easy to commit to shots.

A lot of my numbers today were either full numbers or just a touch under full, so I didn’t have to manufacture a lot of shots today. Whereas some days you just never seem to have the right club.  You seem to be on that half yardage all the time.  Today I seemed to have a lot of full numbers.

Finally, we hold this guy in such high regard. He is the omniscient purveyor of all of golf’s secrets and wisdom, right? If only we could know what he knows. If only we could know what he’s thinking when he plays. One observer made a straightforward attempt to find out by pointing out that it was the best ball-striking they’d seen in a long time and wondered why everything was “clicking so well?”

If I knew that answer we’d do it every week, right?

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