With the Masters now upon us the question of whether Tiger will play or not has once again arisen, and of course that question leads to many more: Will he stay healthy? Will he be competitive? What will his swing look like? Can he win again? If he is able to return to the game and maintain some kind of fitness (a big if), then the most interesting aspect for me will be how he copes mentally with the numerous challenges he will face. Tiger has been touted as perhaps the strongest mind the game has seen, a fact supported by some astounding statistics. However there is one statistic that throws up a potential question mark: he has never won a Major championship when he has not been leading going into the final round. Whilst I don’t expect this statistic to change in the immediate future it got me thinking about what it says about the psyche of the man and whether there might be any lessons others can take from it.
We all have our comfort zones throughout everyday life (defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a situation where one feels safe or at ease”) and the following statistics show Tiger was pretty comfortable being the very best in the game.
- Tiger has held the outright 54-hole lead 45 times in his PGA Tour career. He went on to win 43 of them, good for a 95.6 percent clip. For context – over the last three PGA Tour seasons, players with an outright 54-hole lead have gone on to win 39.7 percent of the time.
- Tiger has held the outright 36-hole lead 33 times in his Tour career. He went on to win 28 of them (84.8 percent). In comparison, Jack Nicklaus’ 36-hole outright conversion rate was 63 percent.
- Tiger is 16-1 in his career in playoffs on the PGA and European tours. His only defeat came to Billy Mayfair at the 1998 Nissan Open
- Woods has spent 683 weeks as world No. 1 – 352 weeks (more than six years) more than any other player in OWGR history (Greg Norman is second).
- Tiger has 18 career World Golf Championship victories. Second on the all-time list? Dustin Johnson. He has five.
- In a stretch from the middle of the 1999 season through the middle of the 2001 season, Woods won 20 of the 38 stroke-play events he played on the Tour (a .526 win percentage). In those events, Woods was a combined 472 under, a cumulative score 307 shots better than anyone else. Vijay Singh was second
- He went nearly 15 years before losing a lead greater than 2 shots going into the final round. (Graeme McDowell beat him from 4 back in the 2010 Chevron World Challenge).
Some statistics demonstrating Tiger Woods’ ability to dominate his opponents in his prime
(taken from golfchannel.com and thegolfnewsnet.com).
Take a moment to digest some of those numbers as they are quite staggering when you consider how fickle golf is and how much luck can be involved in winning golf tournaments. Tiger in his prime was Superman. He was the longest hitter, the best iron player, the best short game player, the best putter, the strongest mentally, the fittest, the hardest worker, and everybody else knew it. More importantly perhaps, he knew it. Since he was a small child he had been groomed to be the best and had grown up knowing only winning (an unprecedented 3 US Junior titles followed by 3 US Amateur titles as an example). He was comfortable being the best and was at his best when literally stomping all over the opposition (who wins a US Open by 15 shots as Tiger did in 2000…….. when does anybody win anything by 15 shots!!!).
So how can this freakishly great player with 14 Major titles to his name have never won one when trailing going into the final round? One would think he should have been more equipped than anyone to come racing through the field like some kind of golfing Usain Bolt. Perhaps the answer is that he was out of his comfort zone. He saw himself as the best and when he was falling behind he pushed too hard, became too intense in his desire to claw his way to the top of the leader board. Instead of simply concentrating on playing his best golf and trusting that to be good enough he tried to force the issue.
I remember Colin Montgomerie (who famously never won one of the 4 majors) squirming in the Sky Sports studio as Jack Nicklaus opined that he thought the Majors were the easiest to win because he basically just waited for everyone else to mess up. Why could Tiger not adopt this approach, put a 68 or 69 up in the final round and see what happens? I think the answer is that he is the kind of guy that wants to make things happen and so it goes against his instinct to take that approach, he would feel uncomfortable doing it. By the same token it is also because he was the kind of guy that makes things happen that he was so in control when he had the lead. It was where he wanted to be, where he was comfortable.
You could see it in his body language, when 5 shots clear there would be an almost Zen like calmness about him. When he was trailing by 5, clubs would be getting slammed and expletives shot from his mouth. So the question for me today is how he will cope now that he is no-where near the longest, there are huge question marks over his short game, doubts about his putting and of course uncertainty whether he will ever hold up physically over 4 rounds. Superman has lost his cape, in fact he may have lost his whole suit (imagine how uncomfortable you might feel standing on the first tee in nothing but your underpants!).
It must be a massive blow to his ego to suddenly see Dustin Johnson flying it 40 yards past him off the tee, to have a degree of uncertainty when faced with a delicate pitch from the tightest of lies, to not really know whether his body will allow him to compete. It is easy to say the right things about being patient, but can he really do it. Can he be comfortable not being the best, can he play tournament golf knowing that he might not win, even if he plays really well. There is no doubt in my mind that the Tiger of 2000 would dominate even today, however that Tiger will never return as he no longer has the physical advantages over the field he had back then. He will have to find a different approach, a ‘sneakier’ approach of working his way through a tournament and his competitors instead of bludgeoning them with his power game. He will have to win as a mere mortal. I hope he can find a way to be healthy enough to compete as it will be fascinating to see whether he can cope with the challenge.
Tiger is now going to have to face the same thoughts that nearly all golfers (including Tour players) have to deal with. He is going to have to cope with a degree of doubt in his ability, with the knowledge that other players might be able to hit shots he can’t, with the uncertainty of whether he can win. These are all elements of the game which ramp up the pressure when you are competing, they are all elements which can make you feel uncomfortable and they all contribute towards making golf such a mentally challenging game. They are though, all elements which many players manage to overcome with the correct attitude to their game, practice and mental approach (compare the Dustin Johnson of 2016/17 to the one of a few years ago).
One of the beauties of golf is that other players can only influence your game if you allow them to. It’s why ‘Pro-Am’ golf is so popular, as there are not many sports where a recreational player could play alongside a professional and still make a contribution. If you choose to, you can enter a world where it is just you against the golf course. There is no danger of a Dale Steyn bouncer knocking your head off, James Haskell crunching you with a tackle or Anthony Joshua delivering a knockout blow. How you play is ultimately down to you, there should be no excuses and the only real danger is to your ego.
Fortunately, there is no danger of facing this on the golf course!
(Picture taken from Skysports.com)
Everybody has heard the old mantra about ‘staying in the present and taking one shot at a time’, however it is easier said than done and in my experience can cause its own set of problems. It is nigh on impossible to expect to be able to play a round of golf without getting ahead of yourself or being distracted by an outside influence at some point, especially if things are going well. It is just human nature for your mind to start wandering off to what might happen, or to feel uncomfortable when the pressure is on. If you are intent on simply “1 shot at a time” and this happens then it can be unsettling, as you try to get back in your bubble. Panic might even set in as you realise you have started thinking about the wrong things. To really stay in the moment on each and every shot you need to have some kind of strategy (preferably more than one) that allows you to pull yourself back to the present and the task at hand.
I used a few techniques with some success during my playing career. The first (and most simple) was borrowed from a Dr Bob Rotella book, which he had used with Brad Faxon when he was trying to qualify for a Ryder Cup team: If you know that unwanted thoughts are going to pop into your mind simply use them like a reminder alarm on your phone, they should remind you to focus on the next shot and forget the outcome. This way every time you have a negative thought, get ahead of yourself or feel uncomfortable it acts as a trigger to reset your mind and get back to the task at hand.
The second technique I used to win my first European Challenge Tour event (shooting 63, 66 on the weekend with no dropped shots) and was a tip from another player (Stuart Davis) to break each round of golf down into 6 “sets”. I would set myself a target of a minimum of 1 under par for every 3 holes (which of course can be adapted depending upon conditions and your ability) and once I had played 3 holes that set was done and I would start again. It’s a great way of moving on from a bad hole or two, but is an even more powerful tool when you are playing well as it encourages you to keep playing positively and attacking the golf course. None of that “protecting a score” rubbish goes on as I found this allowed me to genuinely forget what score I was on and keep forging ahead.
Thirdly, I would try to downplay the importance of that days round of golf and increase the importance of stringing together good round after good round. By focusing too much on that week’s or day’s tournament I found I could become too intense and stifle my ability to perform to my best. By setting a goal of shooting the best score I could on the day, and thinking about creating momentum to take into the following week it gave me a better chance to play well and score as I needed to. At the end of the day you can play great, knock it round in 63 and someone else beat you by a shot. By the same token you could play average and win. In fact, I have taken as much pride and confidence from a couple of second places I had as I did wins because I finished the tournaments so strongly only for another player to pip me at the post (nothing beats holding that trophy though!).
It is also vital that you make a good portion of your practice as ‘uncomfortable’ as you can. Create scenarios in your head that make you feel uneasy, put your golf ball in difficult lies, give yourself tests and play games. Preferably this should be in a 1 ball format, you don’t get a second chance on the golf course so don’t give yourself the luxury when practicing. It might make you feel warm and fuzzy on the inside to hit the same shot again and again until you have “perfected it” but the reality is it probably won’t help you to do it when your hands and knees are shaking. Competitive golf is about being able to adapt immediately to any situation which arises, whether that is the weather, a bad lie, reacting to a bad swing or adjusting your technique to hit the required shot. By making practice uncomfortable you should begin to feel more comfortable on the golf course and you will have dealt with many situations and have a truer reflection of what you are really capable of doing (first time!). With time this will breed confidence.
Practicing in such a manner can be infectious, it can lead you to become the type of golfer who wants to test their ability and actually thrives off the buzz of hitting shots when it feels like everything is on the line. I liken the final holes of a golf tournament (or any shot that you feel under pressure) to getting on a rollercoaster: you can either get on the thing and enjoy the thrill of the ride, or you walk in the opposite direction and hide away from it. The quote below from Phil Mickelson talking about Jon Rahm and his recent win at the Farmers Insurance Open really sums up how players who thrive under pressure think.
“Jon doesn’t have weaknesses, every part of his game is a strength. I think he’s one of the best players in the world. There’s an intangible that some guys have, where they want to have the pressure put on them, they want to be in that tough position. They want to have everything fall on their shoulders. He has that.”Phil Mickelson - talking about new Spanish sensation Jon Rahm
As you move forward with your practice and play, try to incorporate some of these ideas into what you do. Ultimately your goal should be to become ‘comfortable feeling uncomfortable’ when you are on the golf course. Aim to become the player, like Jon Rahm, who thrives on being stretched mentally and enjoys the challenge of trying to hit shots when it matters, or confronting the shots that you really don’t fancy. Hopefully Tiger will be able to work his way back to fitness, so that the golfing world can observe whether he is able to answer any of these same questions. That one chink in his pre fire hydrant armoury of never having won a major when coming from behind suggests that even he struggled when out of his own comfort zone. Can he adapt? Can you? By practicing in an effective manner, having a good attitude and employing some basic mental strategies you will give yourself a good chance.
Gareth Davies is the Head Teaching Professional at Abbeydale Golf Club in Sheffield. He is a former European Tour player and has competed all over the world, during which time he has worked with some of the best coaches in the game. He has been recognised both regionally and nationally whilst he completed his PGA training.