By Tod Leonard
Staff Writer, Union-Tribune

tiger-woods-and-dr-mike-lardonAUGUSTA, Ga. The scene is Wednesday of the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago. Dr. Michael Lardon, a San Diego-based sports psychologist, is hanging out on the putting green with a client, Rich Beem. Next to them, Tiger Woods is working, head down, hitting putt after putt.

Beem, the 2002 PGA champ, can’t roll more than a few balls without offering some off-beat commentary or having something else catch his attention. That’s the Beemer, life of the party.

A few feet away, Woods goes about his business as if he’s practicing on a deserted island.

Lardon goes to lunch. When he comes back, Woods is in the same spot, doing the same drill.

Tiger was in this trance state. I know from years of being in psychiatry he was in another consciousness, Lardon says. The guy was in an interminable bubble.

This was the day before the tournament began. When the competition rolled around, it wasn’t a fair fight. Playing conservatively, Woods toyed with Medinah and the field, winning his 12th major by five shots.

He kicked some royal butt. It was phenomenal, Lardon said.

For the first time, Lardon had experienced first-hand what he already knew: Woods has no peer when it comes to having the ability to match his extraordinary physical talents with unparalleled mental preparation and toughness.

All of the greats found that zone. You could see it in the eyes of Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Nick Faldo, Payne Stewart. There were shots they pulled off, putts they made that seemed the stuff of will and destiny.

But with all of them, it happened in spurts. In a game in which confidence can be shattered with a single bad shot, and focus can wane over an eight-hour workday, Woods has shown that on the grandest stages he can live in the moment, better and longer, than anybody.

He’s crazy-good under pressure, Johnny Miller said. Without a doubt, he’s the greatest pressure player who’s ever lived.

The vise doesn’t squeeze the melon any more than it does in weeks like these. Woods enters the Masters tomorrow with 13 major victories to his credit, four green jackets already in his closet, and the considerable weight of his own expectations. It was Woods who said at the year’s outset that winning the season Grand Slam was easily within reason, and this is major No. 1.

Pleased with his game, though never satisfied, and seemingly content in every aspect of his life, Woods reckons he is playing his best golf ever. He has won eight of the last 10 times he has teed it up in an official event, and though the raves come in waves for Woods, it still seems like there isn’t a deep enough appreciation of how hard that is to do, to stay in the zone for that long.

It’s pretty scary, said John Cook, one of Woods’ closer friends on the PGA Tour. He loves to learn, he’s trying to get better, he’s at a place he’s very comfortable with. Everything is right in line. This allows him to focus on what he wants to do and that’s win every time he plays.

Woods had won five straight tour events before placing fifth in the WGC-CA Championship three weeks ago. In the PGA Tour’s first three months, he produced all sorts of magical moments.

He’s remarkable, veteran Fred Funk said. And it’s not even his physical game. It’s his mental game that’s the difference between him and everybody else. Everybody knows it and he knows it.

Dr. Jay Brunza sees and hears it all, and quietly enjoys it.

I just see a fruition, from start to finish, Brunza said.

Few in Tiger’s circle know his mind better than Brunza. A retired Navy captain and clinical psychologist who now works with individual athletes and college teams, Brunza began playing golf with Earl and Tiger Woods after a mutual friend from the Navy introduced them. He would become a trusted family friend and caddie for Woods during five of his USGA amateur championships and his first Masters in 1994.

Brunza laughingly remembers a young Tiger during their weekend rounds at the Navy Course in Los Alamitos, hurrying down the fairway to crane his neck to see if he’d outdriven the adults.

He was just so competitive, said Brunza.

Earl asked Brunza to work with his son on his mental game when Tiger was 13. Dad had laid the groundwork by using various psychological tricks and tactics to toughen Tiger.

Woods said Brunza helped him hone his creativity at a young age.

Obviously, I like to create shots, and I have no idea what people say about ‘seeing’ the shot. I’ve never ‘seen’ the shot. Because of my creativeness, I see the (ball) going all over the place, Woods recalled. I used feel and my hands. That’s one of the things Jay really helped me with, was to understand that and harness that.

Brunza, who works out of his San Diego home and rarely gives interviews regarding Woods, recalled last week the joys of helping mold a young Tiger.

Whatever your spiritual framework is, he was given this marvelous gift to be this elite athlete, Brunza said. God creates a Leonardo da Vinci or Beethoven in how many years?

He was just a joyful child to be around. He was a balanced child, not a robo-golfer. He was highly intelligent and had this great ability to learn things.

When I talk to some kids now, I tell them that I can’t zap them on the forehead to make them better. Tiger always understood that. He worked at it, and I could tell he worked at it when I saw him play.

In the ’80s, Brunza recognized how the Eastern bloc athletes were using trancelike states to excel in the Olympics, and he regularly worked with Tiger on achieving such a state. He said those sessions, working in Tiger’s room at the family’s modest house in Cypress, are among his fondest memories.

Comically, even Woods’ German shepherd Boom Boom got into the program.

Booms was always right there with Tiger. And Booms would go into a trance, too, Brunza recalled with a laugh. I’d be bringing Tiger out after about 20 minutes, and Booms was coming out, too.

Other sports psychologists look at Woods’ training, given at a time when there was still a stigma attached to using a shrink, and marvel at the wisdom of it.

Most people learn how to play golf, and when they reach a plateau, then they seek out sports psychology, said Dr. Morris Pickens, a featured psychologist on, whose clients include defending Masters champion Zach Johnson. It’s always an add-on. Tiger integrated them early. It’s like trying to learn a foreign language when you’re 30 years old. It comes a lot more naturally when you’re 3 or 4 years old.

Lardon, whose book Finding Your Zone will be released in June, studied the brain waves of elite athletes at UCSD in the early ’90s and found that they have the ability to reach a higher level of consciousness in their task.

It’s the concept of absorption, Lardon said. Like the ability to get lost in a movie or a sunset. Tiger has the ability, when it’s time, to be completely absorbed in the process.

Dr. Deborah Graham, who has worked with more than 350 male and female pro golfers over three decades, developed through her studies a list of eight traits she believes are the foundation for success of a champion. They include emotional stability, tough-mindedness, confidence and the ability to make your own decisions.

Though she has never tested Woods, Graham ranks him at the top in nearly every category.

He’s got to be one of the top five athletes in the world, Graham said.

She believes Woods got an exceptional upbringing, with his father’s military toughness and sharing and caring philosophy meshing with his Thai mother’s goal-oriented culture and the self-awareness provided by her Buddhist faith.

The combination is awesome, Graham said. He really got the best of both worlds.

Woods has said that the unconditional love he felt at home always gave him the ability to try and fail.

I guess I learn from experiences, he said recently. I’m not afraid to look at both the negative and the positive. You’ve got to keep a balance. You can’t be afraid to tell the truth on yourself. People have a hard time with that, being completely honest with themselves and admitting they hit a bad shot. I don’t have a problem with that.

Everyone else can speculate and pontificate. It comes down to a simple summation for Woods.

I’ve just always enjoyed competing, he said. I enjoy winning. I enjoy the fight of it, of getting mixed up with the guys and trying to beat them when they are trying to beat me.

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