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The Mind of the Tiger

Tiger Woods is a one-man dynasty in the making, but it's not just his golf skills that awe his opponents, it's his mental approach to the game.
Jeff Williams
Posted: June 27, 2008

If you ask Ernie Els, Jim Furyk or David Toms, all top players on the PGA Tour, what the deadliest weapon is in the arsenal of Tiger Woods, they won't say his driver or his wedge or even his magical putter. To a man, they will say it is "his mind."

For all his physical brilliance, from his nuclear strength to his delicate touch, it's the Mind of the Tiger that has propelled him to the summit of the golf universe and put him within striking distance of Jack Nicklaus's record 18 major championships.

There is no arguing that Tiger Woods is the greatest physical talent to ever play the game. But there are plenty of players with superb physical ability. What separates Woods from his colleagues is his mind-over-no-matter-what mentality. His absolute determination to win and his absolute determination to get better have no parallel in the game.

Toms, the 2001 PGA champion, has seen the effect of Woods's mind close up. "Even when he is not playing his best, Tiger can beat you with his mind," says Toms. "He figures out a way to get the most out of whatever he has on a given day. He never, ever gives up. I think the single most difficult thing for most players is to keep a positive attitude when things are going wrong. It's not like you just quit or anything, but your focus can be off. You can be thinking about the last bad shot you hit instead of the next shot you have to hit. Tiger is always thinking ahead, always focused on what he has to do next."

Even Els, who at the start of the new millennium was Woods's most consistent adversary, acknowledges that Woods can make you do things you don't want to. Els had a chance to win the Dubai Classic this year, being tied with Woods until they played the 18th hole, a par 5 with an approach over water. Woods hit his second shot over the green, then left his bunker shot well short, only to hole a 25-footer for birdie to take the lead. Els was in the group behind him and had a decision to make—to go for the green in two and set up a winning eagle putt, or lay up and try for a birdie that would force a playoff. He went for the green, found the water, and lost.

"When he's out there, he's in contention," Els said in February just before winning the Honda Classic, a tournament that Woods does not play. "You know he's not going away and you know he's not going to make too many mistakes. So it puts added pressure on yourself, and sometimes drives you into that you don't normally do.

"Like me in Dubai going for that green. I had a one in 10 chance of hitting the perfect shot, and I was going for the eagle. But if I think birdie, if I lay up, pitch it up there and try and make a putt to get into the playoff instead of trying to win it outright, I had probably a better chance of doing that. So it forces you into something you might not normally do, and you've got to be quite strong not to fall into that trap. So he's there all the time, and he's not making a lot of mistakes, so you know that and it's tough to compete against that."

As Els discovered, Tiger's mental approach imposes itself on the game in different ways, from strategy to creativity to determination. The force of his will is undeniable. And that's not unlike Nicklaus. The power of Nicklaus's mind had as much to do with his major championship dominance as his swing. In the wake of Woods's come-from-behind victory over J.B. Holmes in his opening match of the Accenture Match Play Championship in February, where he was three holes down with five to play, NBC commentator Johnny Miller had this to say about the impact that Woods's mind has on his opponents: "Maybe when it's all said and done, it will be proven that Tiger forces lipouts."

But even though it's not all said and done yet, Woods already possesses one of the most impressive records in the game—ever. Since breaking onto the world's golf scene as a teenager, Tiger has won three straight U.S. Junior Amateur titles, three straight U.S. Amateur titles, two tournaments in his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 1996, his first Masters title—by a record 12 strokes—in 1997, and 13 major championships by the start of 2008. His win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March gave him his 64th title, tying him for third with Ben Hogan on the all-time victory list behind Sam Snead (82) and Nicklaus (73), and extended his winning streak to seven, five of them official PGA Tour events.

Tiger Woods's phenomenal success comes as no surprise to those who have followed him since he first swung a club as a young boy. At the age of four, he was just a little tyke who could barely see over the counter in the pro shop at Heartwell Golf Course in Long Beach, California, where he took his first lesson from Rudy Duran. Duran knew immediately that the kid was special. The first four balls he hit were striped 60 yards down the middle using his cut-down 2-wood.

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