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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

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Ever notice how Woods, as he sets his stance, decidedly blinks his eyes? It's a trigger action, one that is as much of his pre-shot routine as taking his grip or making a waggle. It's a way to put himself deep into the zone, to block out all thoughts other than the execution of the swing. It doesn't matter if the U.S. Open or the Masters is on the line, it's this shot, and this shot only, right now.

His swing has been meticulously honed, from his days with Duran and Anselmo, to his famous hookup with Butch Harmon and his subsequent association with Hank Haney, who advises him today. Woods has worked endlessly to refine every aspect of his swing and everyone who has worked with him attests to the strength of his professional ethic and his willingness to listen and to try something new. "Tiger has an endless desire to learn and get better," says Haney, who is reluctant to talk about what he works on with Woods, as is Woods himself. "He always thinks he can do better and is always looking for ways to improve."

But swing mechanics alone do not make a winner. That's something that Duran discovered early about Woods.

"We often give too much credit to the technical aspects of a swing, or a swing change, and no credit to the person for being able to use any swing to produce a score," says Duran. "Tiger is a wizard at playing golf. I used to think that once you figured out the swing, you would shoot low. That's not true. Tiger came to me without swing knowledge and played golf like a wizard. I had a lot of swing knowledge, but he was better than I was."

Dr. Bob Rotella has been golf's reigning psychological guru for more than a decade now and has intently studied Woods's mental abilities without being an adviser to him. He sees now what Duran saw 25 years ago, and knows that Tiger's game is far more than just a factor of his swing.

"He's got real self-confidence," says Rotella. "A lot of people have what I call swing confidence. If they are puring it, they think they can win. That doesn't have anything to do with whether he thinks he can win. He knows he can be hitting it unbelievably crooked off the earth and still win. In terms of his ability to score, it doesn't mean anything to him if he misses a fairway or a green. If he hits in the woods, OK, it's more fun to make birdie from the woods. If he misses a green, OK, it's more fun to chip in. That's self-confidence. He knows he doesn't have to be at his best to win."

That's because if his swing is off, his short game can still win it for him. Woods is the best putter on the planet, the best at extricating himself from heavy lies around the greens, a masterful bunker player. These shots are based on imagination far more than they are on technique, and Rotella sees Woods's short game as the key.

"He's got a great short game. In golf, it's impossible to have a great short game if you don't have a great mind. He happens to be the strongest at the part of the game that is most crucial. You finish every hole, every round, every tournament with a putter or a wedge. To build a great mind around that is the way you design a golfer. Most people try to design it around the driver, but if you want to be a champion, you have to do it around the greens. That's his greatest asset."

Nicklaus wasn't nearly as proficient around the greens as Woods, though he was probably the greatest 12-foot putter of all time. Like Woods, he had prodigious length and like Woods, he was an excellent long-iron player. What Nicklaus was exceptional at was strategy: figuring out how to best play a course, where to hit it off the tee, where the best entrance to a green was, where was the best place to miss a shot, how to adapt his left to right ball flight to each hole. Now Nicklaus sees Woods doing that very same thing, and Tiger's strategic thinking won him the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool.

The venerable old track was brown as toast that July week, the result of an uncharacteristic drought and heat wave. Woods quickly learned in the practice rounds that his driver could get him into real trouble, even if he hit the ball down the center of the fairway. The ball was running so far out that he could still end up in the rough, or worse, a deep pot bunker. Woods hit either his 2-iron or 3-wood off the tee all week, with the exception of a driver on the 17th hole the first day, a shot that got him in a spot of trouble. By staying in play off the tee though he might be 30 or 40 yards behind his playing partners, Woods was able to minimize his mistakes and maximize his opportunities. It was a strategy that Nicklaus admired, having watched Woods play the final round at Royal Liverpool. "I thought it was a superb round of golf," says Nicklaus. "It was as good a finishing round as I've ever seen anybody play. He controlled the ball beautifully and showed great maturity in his management."

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