Like so many golf fans, I’d never even thought about watching golf on television until Tiger Woods. I don’t play the game and the images of all those manicured greens and hushed crowds always struck me as incredibly boring. Why would I want to watch a game that seems to consist mostly of people walking?
But then, one day, I saw Tiger play the game. And now I’m a PGA addict. I spent way too much of the weekend (and most of a Monday afternoon) camped out on my couch, watching Tiger and Rocco perform acts of finesse at the US Open that I can’t even begin to comprehend. There’s a certain pleasure in watching a sport that you have never attempted: my brain has no idea how someone can take a graphite stick and then, by altering the subtle details of their stroke, make the ball go 110 yards instead of 115 yards, or put so much spin on the little white orb that it hits the grass and rolls backwards.
Watching Tiger Woods reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from John Updike’s novel Rabbit Run. Rabbit, the hapless protagonist, is playing golf with his Episcopalian minister and is trying to explain what he’s “chasing in life,” what he “wants from it all.” Lacking the eloquence to put his desire in words, Rabbit takes a swing. To his surprise, he hits a booming drive that flies down the fairway, a divine straight line diverted only by gravity. He turns to the minister and says, “That’s it.”
What Rabbit is saying is that he wants to taste perfection, even if the taste only lasts as long as a golf swing. The joy of watching Tiger is that we get to bask in a similar state of grace, even if the grace comes in short bursts on the back 9, or on a 20 foot put on the 18th hole. We get to see someone who is better at this – a silly game – than we will ever be at anything. In every other sport, I root for the underdog – when I’m watching golf, I always root for Tiger.
And then, the obvious question: How does he do it? What makes him the best? The body speaks for itself. Tiger has muscles where most golfers have man boobs. He looks like he’s made entirely of fast-twitch fibers. However, while such a Promethean body might be a necessary part of athletic perfection, it is hardly sufficient. As the Nike ads make clear, Tiger’s real secret is his mental toughness. Here’s David Brooks:
Rocco Mediate’s head swiveled about as he walked up the fairway of the sudden-death hole of the U.S. Open on Monday. Somebody would catch his attention, and his eyes would dart over and he’d wave or make a crack. Tiger Woods’s gaze, on the other hand, remained fixed on the ground, a few feet ahead of his steps. He was, as always, locked in, focused and self-contained.
In a period that has brought us instant messaging, multitasking, wireless distractions and attention deficit disorder, Woods has become the exemplar of mental discipline. After watching Woods walk stone-faced through a roaring crowd, the science writer Steven Johnson, in a typical comment, wrote: “I have never in my life seen a wider chasm between the look in someone’s eye and the surrounding environment.”
But Tiger isn’t just focused. If he paid exquisite attention to his stroke while playing in the US Open, if he obsessed over his torqued wrist or the rotation of his hips, then he wouldn’t have won: he would have choked. That’s what happens when you think too much.
If anything, Tiger’s astonishing talent is to focus on not being focused. He concentrates on tuning out his consciousness, on ignoring the little voice in his head telling him that he needs to make this shot, or that he must avoid the sand bunker on the left. I have a feeling that if you imaged Tiger’s brain while he was preparing to swing a golf club you’d see the following:
activation in specific neural systems associated with conflict monitoring (e.g. the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), selective attention (e.g. the temporal parietal junction, ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex, frontal eye fields) and sustaining attention (e.g. right frontal and parietal areas and the thalamus)
That’s the sequence of neural events in the brain of a Buddhist monk practicing meditation. It’s what happens when the mind dissolves into itself, when self-awareness vanishes into the flow of automaticity. Bradley Hatfield, a professor of kinesiology and psychology at the University of Maryland, has led some cool studies on the particular brain wave patterns emitted by expert athletes (golfers, archers, rifle shooters, etc.) when they are performing in their domain of expertise. Like the monks, Hatfield found that these athletes, at least when compared to novices, inhabit a brain defined by its tranquility. Unlike novices, who exhibit all sorts of errant spikes in EEG – their brain is humming with conscious thoughts, noticing all sorts of irrelevant stimuli – the EEG of experts was eerily consistent, from beginning to end. In particular, there was dramatically reduced activity in the left temporal lobe, an area implicated in “feature detection”. It was as if the expert athletes were no longer paying attention to the outside world, or even to the movements of their own body. They didn’t have to think: they were in the zone.
Tiger, of course, is the epitome of such expertise. When I watch him play golf, this is what leaves me most in awe: his ability to not think. To not think about his knee, which is going to scream in pain after his tee shot. To not think about the tens of thousands of people lining the fairway or the millions watching on television. To not think about his career or the possibility of winning his 14th major. To not think about the mechanics of his swing or the last shot he yanked to the right. To not think about anything at all. For once, the corporate motto is right: just do it. And that’s what Tiger does.