Tiger Woods has always played golf like it is a combat sport.
He is ferociously (and famously) competitive, and he has spent almost two decades physically and mentally dominating the other competitors on the PGA Tour.
— Hero World Challenge (@TWFoundation) December 1, 2014
That single-minded determination is what made it possible for him to win four consecutive majors, and later take the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines while playing on a broken leg.
But it’s also what could make it very hard for him to transition into this next phase of his career.
It doesn’t matter who you are—Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus or Brett Favre. Time doesn’t stop, and you can’t go backwards. Nobody can always be the fittest 25-year-old on the Tour, hitting it 20 yards by everybody and staring down every pressure putt with no change in your pulse.
Tiger has two choices.
He can continue to try to be the guy he’s been, and attempt recapture the physical and mental dominance from his past. He might even find it for a week, a month or even a season. But his body isn’t as resilient as it was, and he just isn’t in the same place in his life where he can be so single-minded in his approach.
It’s a recipe for burning out. In 20 years of private practice, I’ve seen dozens of professional athletes and members of elite military units grind themselves up this way.
Or, he can take a page from some of the champions who have endured, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gordie Howe or even a rival like Phil Mickelson.
Those players learned how to adapt, and to use wisdom, moxie and experience to compliment their physical skills. They won a different way.
Mickelson is a great example. He’s 44 years old, and he has psoriatic arthritis—a condition that puts realistic limits on the number of weeks in a year he can play without pain.
So Phil plays fewer events and builds his schedule around the events that matter the most to him. He puts everything in place so that he can stay fresh and have the most juice for the four majors.
Tiger’s choice for a new swing consultant seems to be a good first step. Chris Como is known for his biomechanical expertise, and Goal One has to be getting Tiger to the point where he can compete without worrying about getting hurt. If Tiger can play pain free, he then has the room to do the important confidence rebuilding that will let him play at his new peak, whatever that might be.
Maybe he can even learn how to enjoy playing without all the expectations and pressure from his early career. He can tap in to all of the vast knowledge and experience and savor the big and small wins that come from out-thinking the field instead of dominating it into submission. He’s been saying the right things at the Hero World Challenge this week, about nobody escaping Father Time.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that Tiger has built a strong relationship with Lindsay Vonn. When you’re Tiger Woods, there aren’t many people who truly understand what your life is really like.
She’s is a world-class athlete in her own right, and knows the good and bad of competing in the spotlight. She’s also had to deal with the massive disappointment and doubt that comes from getting seriously injured. It’s impossible to overstate how valuable that is for somebody in Tiger’s position.
Tiger Woods already knows more than almost anyone alive how to win. If he can embrace a different strategy to get there, there’s no reason it has to stop.