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.
Duran, then the golf professional at Heartwell, was astonished. What was his first thought about the elfin Eldrick T. Woods?
"Whoa!" Duran recalls vividly of that first experience. Whoa! It's a thought that would occur frequently to Duran over the next six years.
As the boy grew and his game developed at an extraordinary rate, Duran, Tiger Woods's first teacher, would have plenty of occasions to say "Whoa!" It would happen when the young Tiger was able to hit a draw or a fade on command. It would happen when Tiger could make a 7-iron fly like a long iron or float like a wedge. It would happen when Tiger figured out a double-breaking, 30-foot putt. But on one occasion, Duran's "Whoa!" wasn't so much an exclamation as an insight.
"One of the things I could do for Tiger was get him onto some of the local country clubs, which were tougher courses than he was used to playing," says Duran. "I remember it because he was 10 years old and we were playing the 10th hole at this club, a tough par 4, and Tiger made a 10 on it. He hits it in the water, drops, and hits it in the water again and then he three-putts. His reaction epitomizes what he is today. He wasn't thrilled about making a 10, of course, but by the time he got to the next tee, that 10 was gone from his mind. When he needed to play the next shot, he was 100 percent into that next shot. He didn't carry over a bad hole to the next hole. That's what he does today; he doesn't carry something bad over to the present. He isn't happy about a bad swing and he shows it, but it never affects him in the future other than maybe making him more focused on the next shot. He was doing this at a super young age."
Rudy Duran knew from that moment that Tiger Woods's deadliest weapon was his mind. It always has been.
From the time he was a youngster and playing in tournaments at the par-3 Heartwell course, Woods has been difficult to compete against because his parents, Earl and Kultida, prepared him exquisitely for the battle. Duran was part of that mix back then and holds an enduring appreciation for how Earl and "Tida" handled their very special child.
"The Woods family never set a high value on the outcome," says Duran. "They would ask Tiger, Did you have a good time, what did you learn today, what could you do better? He wasn't overly rewarded for success. He was rewarded for having a good time, learning and being a good person. Because of that he's always been in a position where he has a minimum of anxiety based on the outcome. He cares about it but he doesn't worry about it. When I was at his house and we would look at what he had done, there was no anxiety about the outcome, no worry about failure. That gives him a big, big leg up on the other guys. I think Tiger plays far more anxiety-free shots than the rest of the guys."
John Anselmo, a teaching pro at the Meadowlark Golf Course in Huntington Beach, California, became Woods's coach when Duran had to move on. He, too, saw that the young boy had much more than a swing. "Because of his parents, he has tremendous education and focusing," says Anselmo. "He was mentally trained at a young age. His mother would take him to the Buddhist temple and he was a very disciplined young man because of it. He was very quiet but he asked a lot of questions. He knew what he wanted to do and went out and did it. All of that rolled into what you see today."
Earl Woods knew intuitively that his son's physical skills would be governed by his mental acuity. He enlisted Jay Brunza, a retired Navy captain and clinical psychologist who had worked with U.S. Naval Academy athletes to enhance their performance. Brunza worked on Tiger's powers of concentration, hypnotizing him and teaching him self-hypnosis so that he would learn to enter "the zone." The zone was that time when Woods would start preparing for the next shot. It helped that Brunza also caddied for Woods in junior competition and helped him manage his emotions under fire.
"You have to concentrate like this!" Tiger Woods once said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
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."
Nicklaus has his own take on Tiger's mind, and his own. "I think I really did much the same as Tiger does," says Nicklaus. "All I did was try to play what I thought was the right way to play the golf course. It really didn't make any difference what the other player or players did. I think Tiger does the same thing. He plays the golf course the way he thinks he can or should play it. I don't think my mind beat them. I think maybe because I was consistent and he's consistent that everybody else has a tendency to beat themselves with their own minds. All I tried to do was not beat myself."
The Mind of the Tiger has been strong through situations that are outside the ropes, not the least of which was the death of his father in 2006. Woods has learned to cope with intense media coverage that began when he won his first U.S. Junior Amateur and snowballed exponentially when he scored his first, overwhelming Masters victory. He also was able to overcome the dark shadow of the NCAA during his time at Stanford, where he won an NCAA title before leaving after his sophomore year. At least part of his reason for leaving was the NCAA's constant scrutiny into his affairs.
His freshman year he went to Napa, California, to have dinner with Arnold Palmer, whom he had met when he won a Junior Amateur at Palmer's Bay Hill Golf Club. Palmer paid for the dinner, which became the subject of a newspaper story that eventually got back to Stanford coach Wally Goodwin, who felt he needed to inform the NCAA about it and decided to suspend Woods from the team until he got word from on high. Woods was supposed to play in a tournament in El Paso, Texas, and Stanford sent him there before a decision was made on his eligibility. He was left to stew by himself in El Paso and eventually was told by reporters at the tournament, not a Stanford official, that it was OK to play. He ended up winning the tournament.
Jim Furyk has paired well with Woods in team competitions and has gained an understanding of the Mind of the Tiger. He knows that Woods's standard of play has set the bar for this generation of players, and likely for generations to come, just as Nicklaus did in his day. "Playing with Tiger, who is fit and who is committed, is very inspiring," says Furyk. "If you watch how he goes about his business, it's not a surprise he is so successful. He's prepared. He knows what to work on, how many tournaments he has to play to have his game sharp, and he knows how to keep his mind sharp. It's the combination we all strive for."
It may sound simplistic, but Tiger Woods wins because he thinks he can. Of his come-from-behind victory over Holmes in the Match Play, Woods said, "I just kept saying I could win in regulation. That's what I've always done, even if I'm two down with three to play. I've been in that situation a lot of times. I always say I can win in regulation. It doesn't mean that you do, but you have to believe that you can."
No matter the challenge, Tiger Woods has always believed that he can. With the Mind of a Tiger, anything is possible. For years to come, every golf lover will be witness to the fact that the possible is likely to produce the greatest record ever in the game.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.