Go back and recount the incredible things Tiger Woods has done in his career—and there are a lot of them—and one of the most common threads in those stories is his competitiveness.
He had swagger, like virtually all the greatest players do.
It is a mixture of confidence, self-belief and even arrogance that makes the game so much easier for them to play. It doesn’t occur to them that they might fail, and it doesn’t even register as a worry—the way it does for the rest of us humans.
Except that Tiger is human.
— PGA.COM (@PGA_com) February 6, 2015
Nobody is invincible forever.
It goes away for many reasons—injury, age, a new wave of competitors, a change in priorities, a change in motivation.
To watch Tiger the last few weeks is to see the opposite of that confident swagger. He seems to be in the perfect storm of negative factors, from confusion, panic and injury to outright dystonia—the yips.
I can only imagine what a heart rate monitor would say if it was hooked up to him during those rounds in Phoenix. He used to be the most confident golfer in the world, and now he looks like he’s laboring and grinding over the most basic of shots, wondering if he’s going to even advance the ball.
Add in the obvious discomfort he was in from his back in San Diego and it is a terrible thing to watch.
When you’re a player of Tiger’s caliber, attributing the issues in your game to superficial details like the bounce on the wedge or a change in swing patterns isn’t just offering up positive spin for the reporters. It’s lying to yourself, and when you do that it’s impossible to build confidence.
You start actually believing the rationalizations, and they become excuses for why you can’t do something. Eventually, failing just becomes a foregone conclusion.
The answer isn’t in biomechanics or technique. He’s proven himself on the highest possible level. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t always be trying to tweak or perfect what he’s doing. The great ones are never static.
But he has to recognize the difference between tweaking and tearing everything down.
The tear-downs he’s aready gone through—at least three of them, with Butch Harmon, Hank Haney and Sean Foley—all took time and energy, and from what I understand, it took him longer each time to come out of the rabbit hole and be competitive again.
That isn’t surprising. The more often you do something like that, the more information you’re trying to overlay in your mind. You’re also dealing with the reality of older age. Almost nothing we do at age 39 is as easy as it would have been at 19 or 29.
That’s a reality even Tiger Woods will eventually have to accept.
So what now?
I’m not inside Tiger’s head, so I don’t know exactly what the underlying issues are, but I can make an educated guess about what he needs to do—and what he needs to stop doing.
The rationalizations have to stop. They’re proof he needs a psychologist more than he needs a swing coach. I can certainly understand where they’re coming from. He’s in a place he’s never been before, and he’s trying to keep it together in front of the most attention any player ever got. But until you get past the rationalizations, you can never actually fix the issue.
He needs to withdraw for a few months and take a breather from everything—rebuilding his swing, worrying about the chipping yips, all of it. He needs to get his body healthy and his mind much more calm. Golf has gone from being an automated movement to being a conscious effort. That’s not just a figure of speech. When he’s chipping, he’s routing the signals through his motor cortex and actually interrupting the motion.
There’s an old Sufi parable I really like that speaks to this situation. A man lost his keys, so he went outside and started to look for them in the bright light of day. The Sufi Master walks by and sees the man, and asks him “What are you searching for?” The man replied that he lost his keys inside the house. “Then why are you searching outside?” asked the Sufi Master.
“Because the light is better out here,” said the man.
Tiger seems to be looking for the lost key outside, when what he really needs to be doing is looking at himself. It might be time for him to stop what he’s doing, retrace his steps and try to get comfortable with himself and who he is before he gets too far down that rabbit hole.