Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Tiger Woods Phenomenon

I have to admit to being absolutely fascinated by Tiger Woods. I’ve followed his career closely, despite doubting him initially. I remember watching the press conference when he announced that he was leaving Stanford and turning pro. I particularly remember watching Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, talk about the $40 million contract they had signed with Woods, and I remember laughing out loud and ridiculing Knight when he said that Tiger Woods would transcend the game of golf the way Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali transcended their sports.

No way, I said; not a chance. No matter how good he is, no matter how much he dominates the sport, golf will never be anywhere near as popular as basketball or boxing and that will limit his fame and his standing in relation to the rest of the sports world. Golf is too much an exclusive sport, too tied in with the rich and the well born to have the kind of universal appeal that other sports have. And it’s solitary, one man by himself, with no defense to be played and no one on one competition to fuel rivalries. Yeah, I’m glad I didn’t put any money on that prediction.

But frankly, it’s the individual nature of golf that makes Tiger so fascinating to me. In golf, you aren’t playing against the other players so much as you’re playing against yourself and against the course. The golf swing is perhaps the most difficult physical task to master in all of sports. There are so many variables, so many tiny little things that have to be perfect in order to hit the ball where you want it. The slightest tilt of the wrist at impact, the tiniest imbalance in your posture on the backswing, the most unnoticable deviation from striking the ball squarely and the ball can end up in the woods, in the lake or even on the next fairway. It takes enormous discipline to play the game well.

Tiger’s discipline is legendary. “You may outplay me,” he has said, “but you wil never outwork me.” He is a relentless perfectionist who can shoot a 65 and then still feel the need to hit the practice range to work for two hours on a single specific shot that he thinks he might need on a single hole in that tournament. His planning for a tournament is incredibly meticulous and he focuses all of his attention on winning the four majors, which is why he has won 11 of them to put him in second place all time at only 30 years old.

The only man he is chasing is Jack Nicklaus, the historical standard by which all golfers are measured. Tiger had a poster of Jack on his wall growing up, along with a list of all of his achievements. From the time he was 10 years old, Tiger had his eye not just on becoming a professional golfer, not just on being the best golfer in the world, but on being the best golfer the world had ever seen. He has one goal and one goal only: to beat Jack’s record for the most major tournament victories, which is 18 over his career. Tiger is 2/3 of the way there at 30 years old.

So focused has Tiger been on achieving that goal that he has, in only 10 years, made major overhauls to his swing twice. After joining the PGA tour in 1996 and dominating the end of that season and all of the 1997 season, he decided that he needed to change his swing to make it more durable and more consistent. Working with Butch Harmon, he completely revamped the swing, and for a while he struggled a bit. 1998 was a down year by his standards as he adjusted to the new swing, but about 3/4 of the way through the 1999 season, he suddenly nailed it and went on an unmatched streak.

He won the 1999 PGA championship for his second major victory, along with the last 4 PGA tournaments of the years. He also won the first two tournaments to start 2000, including two wins at Pebble Beach that were nothing short of astonishing. At the AT&T pro-am at Pebble Beach early in the season, Tiger was down by 7 strokes with 7 holes to play; he won the tournament, shotting a 64. Later in the season he returned to Pebble Beach for the US Open and turned in the most dominating performance in the history of major events.

Traditionally, shooting par in a US Open is enough to get you into the top 5. The USGA intentionally makes the course as difficult as possible, changing a couple of par 5s into par 4s and putting the pins in impossible places. At the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach, only one golfer finished under par. In fact, the greatest golfers in the world could score no better than 3 over par for the week. Tiger finished at -12, winning by a staggering 15 strokes and destroying the records for lowest score and largest margin of victory at the same time.

He then went on to set the lowest score in the history of major tournaments at the British Open that year, finishing 19 under par. He became only the 5th man to win the career grand slam, and he did it at 24 years old. To top that, he won the PGA championship and the 2001 Masters as well, becoming the only man ever to hold all four major championships at the same time. All in all, he went on an unprecedented string of victories, winning 7 of 11 majors in 3 years. Naturally, he decided it was time to change his swing again.

In 2003, Tiger turned to Hank Haney to overhaul his swing yet again. Why on earth would a guy who just played the best golf that has ever been played by anyone on the planet tinker with that success. Simple, he said: “I felt I could get better.” He also had knee surgery and needed a swing that didn’t put excess strain on the knee as he jerked his body at impact. So they began the process of designing a smoother, more precise swing that didn’t simply rely on Tiger’s strength and handspeed to get the distance they wanted.

The new swing, he was sure, would lengthen his career and be more sustainable in terms of his body, but as with the first swing change it took a while to become comfortable with it. In 2003, he didn’t win a single major tournament, but he did have 5 victories on the tour. In 2004, he lost his #1 ranking to Vijay Singh after a record 264 weeks on top, but through it all Tiger kept insisting that he was close, that the changes he was making in his swing would pay off as they had before.

2005 would be the big payoff for all that work. He won the Masters for the fourth time, then won the British Open for the second time, bringing his total for major victories to 10, more than halfway to Jack’s record of 18. He regained the #1 ranking, then won his first tournament in 2006 as well. Then in May of this year, his father Earl, by all accounts the more important person in the world to Tiger, died of cancer. He took a couple months off, then came back and had a wobbly start, missing the cut at the US Open, the only time he has ever missed the cut in a major.

Now he’s back with a vengeance. He won the British Open for his 11th major championship, then won the Buick Open for his 50th career victory, the youngest of only 6 players ever to reach that total. And yesterday, he won his 12th major, the PGA championship, by 5 strokes. It’s no longer a question of whether he will break the records held by Jack Nicklaus, but how soon and by how much. I think he’ll finish with around 25 majors, and 30 is a distinct possibility. He is simply the most dominant force in any sport at the moment.

But his impact, as Phil Knight predicted, has transcended sport. Like Ali before him, he has become a symbol of racial progress, opening up a sport that was almost exclusively white before he arrived. Because of him, youth golf is booming all over the country, perhaps around the world as well, and a huge percentage of those who’ve taken up the sport have been minorities. One of the last bastions of white privilege has been opened up to all.

He is doing for golf what my old friend Aaron Dworkin, through the Sphynx Foundation, is doing for classical music, making it a realistic goal for the poor and for minorities to participate in and excel at. This is very important work. Anything that reduces the artificial boundaries on individual achievement improves the human condition, and thousands of young people have men like these to thank for knocking down those barriers, just as so many more can thank Don Haskins, Arthur Ashe or Jackie Robinson in other sports and earlier times. I’m glad to say that I was wrong about Tiger Woods.

Comments

  1. #1 bourgeois_rage
    August 21, 2006

    Great read, Ed. I know a lot of people root against him, but he is the greatest golfer of this generation.

  2. #2 Jim Ramsey
    August 21, 2006

    “The golf swing is perhaps the most difficult physical task to master in all of sports.”

    Ed, I’m afraid I must disagree. I think that being a batter in major league baseball is tougher. Consider, that you can make a good living in baseball if you are a 300 hitter. That means, you can stay employed if you fail 70% of the time.

  3. #3 tacitus
    August 21, 2006

    I usually root against him, not because I don’t admire his astounding talent, but because I like to root for the underdog (especially if he/she’s British, which tends to be the case!).

    In Tiger’s case, he’s so far and above everyone else at the moment that, like yesterday, no one can keep up with him. I was looking forward to watching the final round coverage but when Tiger pulled away I knew it was a foregone conclusion and switched off.

  4. #4 Will
    August 21, 2006

    Great read, Ed. I know a lot of people root against him, but he is the greatest golfer of this generation.

    I disagree. I think that in as little as 10 years Woods will be regarded as the greatest golfer of any generation.

  5. #5 kehrsam
    August 21, 2006

    There is much to admire in Tiger Woods, and a few things to carp about, such as his exagerated sense of privacy after years of relentlessly marketing himself. Like Tacitus, I like to root for the underdog, but certainly am not upset when Tiger lives up to his ridiculous standard of excellence.

    Is Tiger already the best ever? Probably. Will he get the record for majors? That depends upon his health and whether another Tiger emerges. Six majors is still a long road ahead. And while his current swing takes stress away from the balky knee, it still puts a lot of stress on his back, which is the injury that ends golf careers.

    Jim Ramsey, I agree that hitting a baseballed in damned difficult, but I think pitching is a better analogy to what Tiger is up against. Both pitching and golf swings are unnatural acts that all too often destroy the body parts involved. Here’s hoping Tiger has many healthy years ahead.

  6. #6 Dan
    August 21, 2006

    I confess to having my doubts when he re-tooled his swing in ’03. As usual, though, he knew what he was doing. When Earl died earlier this year, there was speculation that it might change Tiger. It certainly appears to have done just that. Tiger seems more determined than ever to dominate, validating the legacy that his father created. Since the British this year, his formula seems simple:

    1. Show up.
    2. Beat the snot out of the field.
    3. Get on his jet and go home.

    It is truly amazing.

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    August 21, 2006

    Jim Ramsey wrote:

    Ed, I’m afraid I must disagree. I think that being a batter in major league baseball is tougher. Consider, that you can make a good living in baseball if you are a 300 hitter. That means, you can stay employed if you fail 70% of the time.

    It is often said that hitting a major league curveball is the most difficult thing in sports. I’ve never tried to hit one, so I wouldn’t know. But I don’t think a baseball swing has anywhere near the number of variables as a golf swing. It doesn’t require the precision of a golf swing, in part because you’ve got a big field to hit to so even if you’re off a bit you can still get a hit (in other words, there are a lot of different ways to succeed as long as you make contact with the ball – if you hit it foul, you still get another shot at it). In golf, you get one swing, and that one swing had better be perfect. The tiniest deviation and that ball could end up 50 yards to the left, behind a tree or in 8 inch rough. And by tiniest deviation, I mean tiniest: if the club head is one millimeter from being square, you’re in the woods. I think it’s much more difficult to master and be consistent at.

  8. #8 Greg Byshenk
    August 21, 2006

    As is true of many comparisons, attempting to compare the “difficulty” of golfing with baseball
    batting has very little point. They are both extremely difficult, but they are difficult in
    entirely different ways
    — despite the fact that they both involve hittina a ball with a
    stick.

    Hitting a baseball consistently requires outstanding reaction, while hitting a golf ball
    consistently requires outstanding precision.

    Playing golf well requires that one be able to place a golf ball within a few yards of your
    target, from a long distance, (almost) every single time. There is very little room for error,
    and a single error (one stroke out of 300) can cost you a tournament. But the ball is sitting
    still, and you have plenty of time to consider exactly what you want to do, what club to choose,
    what sort of shot to hit, etc.

    Hitting a baseball, on the other hand, requires pretty much only that you manage to contact the
    ball and send it back in the general direction it came (plus or minus 45 degrees). But the ball is
    coming at you at speed, and you have only a moment to determine what the speed is, where the ball
    is going (within a not insignificant area), and even if it is going to be in that area, or
    if not, and therefore you should not even attempt to hit it.

    A batter pretty much just has to contact the ball, but even that is staggeringly difficult: a
    success rate of 10% is outstanding (remember that batting .300 is 30% of at bats, not
    pitches. On the other hand, merely hitting a golf ball is easy; almost anyone can do it. The
    staggering difficulty of golf is being able to hit the ball over 100 yards and have it go
    exactly where you want it, and doing so every time.

    Both are extraordinarily difficult — but in completely different ways.

  9. #9 Chris Berez
    August 21, 2006

    I think he’ll finish with around 25 majors, and 30 is a distinct possibility.

    There is a local morning radio show here in D.C. hosted by the Junkies (formally the Sports Junkies). When they got to talking about Tiger this morning, they said the same thing as you, in fact leaning pretty strongly towards Tiger finishing with 30 majors and setting a record that no one will be able to beat after him.

    Great piece, Ed. I’ve been slow getting into golf because usually there are other sports going at the same time, and I’m unable to devote my full attention to the game. I think this is the first sport seen you write about other than basketball (and poker, if you consider that a sport).

  10. #10 Matthew
    August 21, 2006

    He’s lived up to the hype as a player, but people were saying that he was going to make golf radically more popular, and that just hasn’t happened. They said that golf would become more popular among African Americans, and it hasn’t. Golf hasn’t benefited much from Tiger. And frankly it’s easy to see why. Tiger is not an everyman. He didn’t rise from poverty. He’s not approachable. His gives by the books interviews. He’s a fine player, but he’s not a guy who has done for the sport what people were predicting.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    August 21, 2006

    Matthew-

    I think you’re seriously wrong on how he has affected the popularity of golf. I think anyone who plays golf regularly will tell you that their local courses have seen a big increase in their business, and a significant change in the racial makeup as well. The USGA has seen their memberships go way up, along with participation in golf leagues, especially youth golf leagues.

  12. #12 Jim S
    August 21, 2006

    Matthew,

    While Tiger might not have risen from poverty he certainly didn’t come from wealth either. That makes him as much of an everyman as one who comes from poverty, IMO.

  13. #13 kehrsam
    August 22, 2006

    I recently saw a discussion thread on another blog debating whether Tiger or Roger Federer was the most dominant player ever. In any sport.

    I understand many people don’t use much historical perception in discussing these things, but what happened to Annika? She’s still playing very, very well.

  14. #14 Thinker
    August 22, 2006

    Great post, Ed. However, perhaps the most important thing about Tiger only comes out between the lines, and this is something he shares with Annika: mastering the mental part of the game. Any golfer on the professional tours is strong and has a well practised swing – the mechanics are there. But not all of them have the determination and relentless drive needed to push as far as Tiger and Annika have into perfecting the game.

    I also appreciate that they both come across as truly enjoying themselves. And there’s a thought for all of us, I guess: can anyone reach the pinnacle of their profession while not also having fun doing it?

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    August 22, 2006

    I agree, it’s the mental part of the game that really separates Tiger from everyone else. I think that’s true in almost every sport. It’s equally true of Michael Jordan. There are dozens of 6’6 guys with 40 inch verticals. Athletically, he was way above average but there are lots and lots of guys with equal athletic talent in and out of the NBA. What set him apart, as it sets apart Tiger, is that when the pressure is on, they get better rather than worse. Some guys shrink when the lights are brightest and some just have an extraordinary ability to seize the moment and make it into something great. The focus and discipline and the astounding work ethic they show is what makes them so great.

  16. #16 Ed Brayton
    August 22, 2006

    kehrsam-

    That’s an interesting question, and the reason I haven’t paid much attention to Federer is because I’ve just stopped watching tennis. I used to love watching tennis. When I was a kid, we would always spend the 4th of July at my mom’s cottage and we would always watch breakfast at Wimbledon, and this was in the days when Borg and McEnroe had their legendary battles (I still vividly recall their famous 5 set match in 1980 with the 18-16 tiebreaker in the 4th set). And the day my desire to watch tennis died was the day Pete Sampras retired. I was a huge Sampras fan. I expect to be saddened when Agassi retires for good at the US Open, as he truly represents the last of an era. I don’t know why I lost my interest. Federer is a wonderful player who will likely own all of Pete’s records when he’s done. But I just don’t watch anymore.

  17. #17 Daniel Harper
    August 22, 2006

    I don’t know golf from a hole in the ground, but (shades of Gould’s Full House here) is it at all possible that Tiger’s competition isn’t as good as Nicklaus and earlier golfers? Since winning tournaments is really more a question of one’s competition, it may just be that Tiger dominates today, but would have been more evenly matched in decades past.

    Anyone with more knowledge than me care to comment?

  18. #18 andrewf
    August 24, 2006

    Daniel,
    Peter Alliss – commentator on the BBC in the UK for many, many years – said the same thing the other day. Nicklaus had guys like Player, Watson, Palmer, ummm lots of others I can’t remember. Alliss seemed to think Tiger’s competition isn’t in the same league as Nicklaus’.

  19. #19 kehrsam
    August 24, 2006

    Ed:

    To a slight degree I have to differ with you about the “mental side of the game,” Yes, I think it is important, because there are loafers who are inclined to mail in a performance so long as they have the skills to coast by. Charles Shackleford, anyone? Yes, to be one of the elite really does require an unreal commitment to hard work and extreme mental toughness. But lets not kid ourselves, the last guy on the bench needs even more of that or its his job. And certainly the PGA guys on the bubble of keeping their tour cards have the incentive to work harder than anyone else.

    But altogether too many sports announcers tell us how stars do it on guts and brains, etc, not becuase they happen to be really, really good at their sport. In other words, they’re not just great atheletes, but mentally and morally superior to the rest of us, which is just BS.

    Tiger Woods has tremendous coordination matched with exceptional strength. He has a wonderful work ethic and sound judgement as well. If you remove any part of the package, what’s left is great, but not Tiger: Take away the “great judgement” part and you’re left with Greg Norman — a really good player, who everyone thought should have been a wee bit better. It’s an interesting question, but the announcers make way too much of the willpower and mental as contributers to success.

    Daniel Harper: Stephen Jay Gould used to argue that extreme variation in a species indicates a lack of maturity in the evolution, and thus that a relative lack of variation showed that the species had matured into its niche. Bill James used to apply this principal to baseball (and, by implication, all sports).

    This is one of the few science-to-life arguments which I think works. (And that evolution leads to Hitler thing, of course). :D Golf 40 years ago had very few people who could make a full-time living. With very few potential professionals, there was a huge variability in terms of skill: A few people won all the tournaments, everyone else just tried to survive.

    Today, given the money to be made, there is a large number of potential players, and the average level of play has clearly improved. At any tournament where Tiger isn’t playing, there will be a half-dozen favorites, yes, but also 50 other guys who it really wouldn’t surprize you if they won or made it close.

    Given the pool of potential competitors now includes lots of Europeans, people of color and rich people from around the world, these should be the strongeast golf fields in history. And they are.

  20. #20 Daniel Harper
    August 25, 2006

    kehrsam– So you’d actually argue that if Tiger could be miraculously sent back to the time of Nicklaus et al, that he’d actually be even more dominant then than he is now?

    We could examine this statistically by looking at how “clumped” the runner-ups tended to be in the old days versus Tiger’s tournaments; if players 2-15 (or whatever) are very close, with Tiger way out in the lead, while in the old days there was more variability, we might get the idea that Tiger really is just something really, really special.