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.