Tiger Woods: On commitment and the need for tournament rounds

When I began my weekly, 20-minute radio segment Thursday morning (NBC Sports Radio, AM 1060, Phoenix, 7:32 PT), Tiger Woods was 3-over par right out of the gate in the first round of The Memorial Tournament and had then birdied 13 to at least get it back to 2-over.

I had written about Tiger in Thursday’s post and his thinking about how he was coming along with his swing reformation, the fact that he had only played in five tournaments all season long and the fact that his swing was “still evolving” using his own words.

So guest host, Jeff Heisner, and Shot Dog asked what I thought of Tiger’s shaky start as he was making another birdie to get back to just 1-over.

I began by relating my own experiences while trying to Monday qualify on the Champions Tour where I beat my brains out at home playing and practicing seven days a week trying to shoot low scores. But when I took my finely tuned swing out on the road and was playing in competitive rounds where absolutely everything mattered, the fog of competitive golf was more than enough to snuff any chance I had.  

You can work on your swing all you want at home, but it has to be subjected to competitive rounds even if it’s only against 18 one-day hopefuls in local events. You have to get to a point where you are not thinking about your swing when you play, you have to be thinking about your shot. And I should have added that the reps you put in trying to put in a swing change have to transform from an intellectual understanding of the new change into a new “feel” that you don’t have to think about. It’s all about the reps to chase the thoughts away. (Although, when I interviewed Jack Nicklaus, he said that he thought about his swing all the time when he played and that in his prime, he could keep track of as many of five different swing thoughts and do every one of them.)

Tiger bogeyed 17 to go back to 2-over. And as my segment was ending, he double bogeyed 18 to go to 4. It happened so quickly the bumper music drowned out any chance I had to report the change.

Perhaps that’s what it took to wake him up though, because he got to his back nine and birdied 2, 6 and 7 to finish at just 1-over. That may have put him over the cut line at T85, but he had demonstrated to himself that he could “play:”

I didn’t play very good today at all.  I didn’t have much with my game.  I need to work on it here a little bit.  But I fought hard, I fought hard to get back.  And to get it back on a golf course like that, it was pretty good work.

But he was still exhibiting the one thing necessary to keep pushing through the chaos of a swing change: commitment to the change:

It’s the pattern we work on, we’re trying to change it.  It’s kind of what you have to go through.  And unfortunately, I can hit it either way, because of this move we’re working on.  But it’s so much more flush, and so much more solid and a lot easier on my body, when I seem to do it right.

I just grinded.  I just grinded, that’s all I did.  I didn’t really have much.  I was just trying to stay committed to what we’re working on, to what we’re doing.  I hit it awful, yeah.  So what?  I was going to go through this phase and stick with it, keep sticking with it.  And some of the shots I hit were really, really good, but then I also had some really bad shots, too.  And we need to work on that, too and omit the bad ones.

And to the point I made on the radio show, he was asked about how he was able to play so smoothly in Wednesday’s pro-am and then suffer the kind of results he had on Thursday? He makes the case for playing in real competitive situations:

Well, as I said, it’s a little bit different move we’re working on since the Players.  And I just need to — obviously this is nice to get out here and play and test it and see what it’s like, and also to fight like I did and get myself back in the tournament.  But I need to do a little bit of work and keep progressing.  And I’ll try and get it to peak at the right time.

And as if to distinguish the difference between practice rounds and real rounds, he actually admitted that he gets nervous:

Oh, I always get nervous.  That’s great.  And the day I don’t feel nervous on the first tee is the day I quit.  That means I don’t care anymore.  I want to feel that juice on the first day.

Nervous is just a polite euphemism for fear. Fear that you will make an irretrievable mistake at the worst time. In my last practice round at one of my eight Q-School attempts, I happened to notice a deep ditch left of the 10th tee where I would be starting the next morning. It had been carved in the desert by rains washing down from higher land. It was at least five feet deep and a craggy five or six feet wide. It was maybe twenty yards away from the tee at about the 10 o’clock position. There was no way you would be able to play out of it…but there was almost no way you could hit into it either. But the next morning I just couldn’t get that damned ditch off my mind and dinked a little short-armed helper in the first cut and way short of my practice round drives.

And Tiger went on to acknowledge that his lack of competitive rounds was the cause of his inconsistency and that he planned to be playing a much fuller schedule over the coming months:

There’s no doubt about it.  But obviously I wasn’t in a lot of these events.  And on top of that I had my Foundation event in Vegas.  Just the way the schedule worked out.

So now I’m able to start playing a little bit more.  I’ve got a full schedule coming up, which will be great.

And then he laid out the master plan that is causing him to be so patient in the face of pretty dire results for someone of his immense talent:

I’m staying committed to what we’re working on.  And I’ve gone through phases like this, rounds like this before in the past where, yeah, it’s easy to revert back and go ahead and hit some old pattern, but it doesn’t do you any good going forward.  And I’ve done it, sometimes it’s taken me about a year and then it kicked in and I did pretty good after that.  And subsequent years went down the road, I did the same thing.

Got to suck it up.  If you believe in it, do it.  And eventually it will start turning, and when it turns, I’ve had periods where I’ve played good for four or five years, where I’ve won close to 20 tournaments in that stretch.

He also said that none of this had anything to do with physical problems. And in so doing, acknowledged that his back-nine comeback took a lot out of him:

Physically I feel good.  Mentally I feel beat up.  That grind is so hard.  To turn that round around like I did today, I mean — I bogeyed 17, doubled 18.  I rip it off 1.  And I shoot 3‑under par, and that was hard.

That, of course, is why he is still one of the best players in the world notwithstanding his current transitional messes. He has one of the best mindsets in the game:

I’m excited about the fact that, one, I stuck with it, I was committed to it and I turned that round around when it was as bad as it was.  Frustrated with the fact that I didn’t hit it like I did either yesterday or warming up this morning.  And definitely need to go fix that.

And if he gets some tournament reps under his belt on an ongoing basis, it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t be able to fix it.

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