Why Tiger Woods will never win another major

Woods is instinctively a predator, on the course and off, and it’s not clear that a kinder, gentler Tiger has the mental edge needed to win.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, 2009. Tiger Woods is happily married, he’s everybody’s favorite golfer, and he owns 14 major golf championships. It is pretty much assumed that at some point in the coming few years he will tie and surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors, cementing himself as the greatest golfer in history. That evening – and here the details are a bit fuzzy – but it seems that his wife Elin finally realizes that her devoted husband has been serial humping every cocktail waitress on five continents and in a fit of … call it dismay, I guess … attempts to neuter him with a 9 iron. Let’s review Tiger’s competitive results since that moment:

2010 Masters T4
2010 US Open T4
2010 British Open T23
2010 PGA T28
2011 Masters T4
2011 US Open DNP
2011 British Open DNP
2011 PGA Missed Cut
2012 Masters T40
2012 US Open T21
2012 British Open T3
2012 PGA T11
2013 Masters T4
2013 US Open T32
2013 British Open T6
2013 PGA T40
2014 Masters DNP
2014 US Open DNP
2014 British Open 69

In sum, 19 majors have been played. Woods took part in 15 of them and has zero hunks of hardware to show for his trouble. Over the weekend, as Rory McIlroy closed in on his first Open Championship and third major overall, I found myself listening to a lot of sports radio as I drove around running errands. As is always the case, the subject was as much Tiger as it was Rory. That’s how it works: no matter who’s winning, the subject is always Tiger. Specifically, a series of hosts and guests wanted to talk about the most important question in sports: will Tiger ever win another major? The verdict was almost unanimously yes, and individual opinions ranged from sure, he’ll probably he’ll win another one to heck, he could win a bunch more. The reasoning centered primarily on his health and age. In short, he hasn’t won any since Obama’s inauguration due to injury, and he’s still young enough, by golfer standards. Only a matter of time. I respectfully disagree. Yes, Woods has battled injuries. And yes, a number of majors have been won by golfers older than he is right now. I have no problem with these arguments, per se. But they’re the wrong arguments. Tiger’s losing streak isn’t a function of physical issues, it’s a function of his mental issues. He’s lost the Eye of the Tiger, as it were, and if he doesn’t get it back he’s done. And he is unlikely to get it back. Wait, you may be thinking. Tiger has won a lot of tournaments since the scandal. True – eight of them, I think. He was the PGA Player of the Year, the PGA Tour Player of the Year,  the leading money winner and the Vardon Trophy winner just last year. However – and this is key – no majors. And only majors count. Who says so? Tiger does.

I once listened to a radio interview as the host tried to engage Tiger Woods on the topic of his legacy, with the general thrust being “what if you don’t break Jack Nicklaus’s record for most majors?” Repeatedly – as in six or seven questions in a row – Woods refused to even acknowledge the possibility. He just kept answering with one word: “Eighteen.” As in, the number of major tournament victories needed to equal Jack’s epic tally. So in Tiger’s head, nothing matters in life past wins at the British, US Open, Masters and PGA. Other tournaments are nice, I’m sure, but they don’t really count and second in a major is last.

If that’s the only standard that matters to him, who are we to argue? Woods’ historic successes arose as much from his psychology, his attitude, as they did from his athletic and technical skills. And that psychology wasn’t just an on-the-course thing – it was the same psychology that drove him to hound-dogging every woman he laid eyes on. Woods doesn’t have a shot in his bag that dozens of other players on the tour don’t have, but he had, once upon a time, a relentless confidence, a killer instinct and an unparalleled mental toughness that let him make those shots more consistently and under greater pressure, and in doing so this edge let him put his opponents under even greater pressure. All the true greats have/had it: Jordan, Rivera, Montana, Borg, Pelé, Gretzky. They were born for crunch time. If you know sports, you understand that the difference between tenth and second is nowhere near as great as the difference between second and first. More often than not, at the highest levels of competition the gap between first and second is almost purely mental. It’s also true that psychology can be fragile. Athletes need to be in just the right zone to succeed. Sometimes that means the right system, the right position, the right coach, even the right city. There have been guys who were naturally comfortable in smaller markets who just couldn’t hack it under the glaring lights of the big city. A superstar striker (like Red Bull star Thierry Henry) might languish if you move him outside (which happened when he left Arsenal for Barcelona a few years back). Even weekend warriors know what I’m talking about. I had to be near the top of the order in baseball, for instance. If I wasn’t hitting somewhere in the leadoff to cleanup range – preferably first or third – I felt like I was being punished. I’m not excusing my attitude, and I know that hitting 8th and hitting leadoff have a lot in common: it’s the same pitcher, the same bat, the same ball, the same umpire, the same hard slider. But my lifetime average in the 6-9 slots was probably a good hundred points lower than it was when I was hitting 1-5. There was no reason but my own head. The question I’m easing up on is the one none of the highly paid network or newspaper pundits seems interested in addressing: to wit, can a kinder, gentler Tiger Woods be successful the way that the appalling alpha-douchebag, King of the World Tiger was? Let’s face it, that look in Tiger 1.0’s eye coming down the back nine on Sunday with a three-shot lead was the same look he probably had as he stared out past the velvet rope. On the course it was “hand me the 8-iron and watch me step on this bitch’s neck.” Off the course he was like Al Czervik in a brothel: “bring me the blonde, the redhead and three of the brunettes. I’ll have one of those, three of those, a box of these…. Hey, everybody, we’re gonna get laid!” Tiger 1.0 was a predator, on the course and off. And that was central to his identity. It was more than what he did. It was who he was. When the details of his sexcapades began trickling out – day by interminable day – it set up a fairly predictable chain of events, including the non-apology apology press conference, rehab (because cocktail waitresses are an addiction – I’m pretty sure it says so in DSM-V somewhere) and eventually a divorce that reportedly cost him more hundreds of millions of dollars than I have hundreds of dollars. The key in here was the rehab part, because it was critical that Tiger change. The werehound-on-a-Viagra-and-angel-dust-cocktail act had to change if he hoped to salvage his brand and his marriage (and let’s not kid ourselves, it was in that order). So he did rehab. He made an effort to be nicer to people (an effort that frankly looked liked it was painful for him), to acknowledge the existence of reporters and to limit the number of F-bombs dropped per round. All of which goes in service of the goal of making Tiger a better human being. But to what extent did the process of building the nicer, cuddlier Tiger 2.0 neuter the essential edge he needed to dominate the game of golf? If you’ll pardon me putting it this way, to what extent does his on-course success hinge on the F-bombs, treating reporters, regular people and other peasants like lepers and fucking every woman in sight? Can you significantly alter the man’s fundamental essence without compromising the psychology that made him one of the two greatest golfers in history? So far, the answer seems to be no. I hate to be cynical, and I always like to believe the best of people, especially those working hard to do things the right way. I don’t know Woods (don’t really want to, truth be told), and I can’t assess from personal experience his state of mind, his sincerity, and most importantly, his attempts to hitch his physical gifts to a psychology that’s clearly alien to him. But we know that he was treated like a golden god from the time he was a toddler, and he has been pressured, since that fateful Thanksgiving night, to behave like, to be, something I don’t believe he intuitively understands. I have no idea how athletes at any level and in any sport can be expected to succeed if, in crunch time, they have to abandon their instincts and instead of being themselves, be their antiselves. It’s entirely possible that when all is said and done, the only road back to the top for Tiger Woods runs directly through a gauntlet of porn stars, high-priced professionals and cocktail waitresses. That’s not a pretty picture to contemplate, I know, but humans are complex animals. So are Tigers.

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10 thoughts on “Why Tiger Woods will never win another major”

  1. i think mental is often overrated, although to the extent it does play a role, it hurts you. that is, i dont think confidence is likely to make you play better, but i do think a lack of confidence will make you play worse.

    in tigers case, I suspect it s more a function of age. Over at espn.com, nate silver did a great analysis on whether rafa will catch federer. (btw, my tennis expert friends insist rafa’s dirty, as do some of my golf friends assert about tiger.) the answer is nope. the reason is, yeah, old tennis players have won majors but not often. and old, in sports, is not very old. it’s also getting younger. i havent done the same for golfers, but i think we’d find that the examples of oldies winning–nicklaus, floyd, occured a long time ago.

  2. Every hack golfer knows three things: 1) a bunch of Caddyshack lines, 2) Drive for show, putt for dough, and 3) 90% of golf is played between the ears. The mental aspect of golf cannot be overrated. It is why golfers switch from water to beer or beer to whiskey when things go bad. Or change golf balls. Or stop using certain clubs. You try to get the crap out of your head to turn it around.
    Tiger’s action on the course is directly related to his action off the course. Lindsey Vonn stroked his …. ego for a while and he won a few tournaments. But between his back and her knee, his …. ego isn’t getting the stroking needed to win a major. Tiger won’t be winning majors until you see cocktail waitresses driving brand new Buicks.

    1. “…driving new Buicks.” Great line. One of the famous Silicon Valley billionaires, and a confirmed bachelor , was reputed to give out Lexuses, and one of his former veeps told me, “The parking lot was full of Lexuses.”

    2. Your mental comment is complete illogical nonsense.

      How could a hacker know? (And why should anyone put any faith in what a hacker knows?) How can anyone possibly know how much of their failure is physical and how much is mental? Jack Nicklaus has argued that most amateur golfers score worse on the second nine not because of a breakdown in concentration, which is the reason usually given, but because of a lack of leg conditioning. The quads give out, the swing becomes only the top half of the body and the ball starts spraying everywhere, but the hack says “I could make that shot on the first nine. My concentration’s going.”

      I compete in triathlons and I hear that mental crap all the time, but if you analyze times (as I have,) you find that my earlier statement is true: Mental can hurt you, but it rarely helps. Practice helps. That’s why pro golfers use drugs like beta blockers.

  3. I think we are arguing the same point that mental can hurt you. Once you get a chink in the mental armor, you are done. Tiger’s armor has been dented, rusted, and thrown to scrap by a 9 iron, media, loss of sponsorships and possibly therapy.

    Regarding hacks, I put more stock in a hack than a triathlete when the topic is golf. Most hacks can par any hole, but they don’t for a variety of reasons including lack of practice and skill (primarily) and lack of mental and physical conditioning. I agree that physical conditioning plays a large part in amateur scoring. I disagree that it has much impact on putting, where holes are won. If I am on the verge of breaking 70 for the first time or about to win $10 from my buddies, there is mental pressure that will help you miss that 3 foot putt. No amount of running or weight lifting is going to help me sink that putt. I doubt any amount of time on the practice green will help me either. Only previous experience with similar pressure. Getting back on point, Tiger has the skill, the talent, the physical conditioning, the mental conditioning, and the experience to dominate any tournament. But he doesn’t, because he doesn’t believe he can.

    1. I think it’s sort of the same point, but not exactly. I think ANY mental contribution to an athlete’s performance hurts, as this recent study suggests. http://sports.yahoo.com/news/neymars-brain-auto-pilot-japan-neurologists-073311971–sow.html. Researchers’ve found the same thing with archers. The best archers have essentially put their frontal cortexes to sleep and let their rear brain do the work. No cheerleading from the cerebrum necessary.

      The idea isn’t that you want your brain to give you a “mental edge,” or make you a “predator,” as Sam says, but rather you want the brain turned completely off.

      Now if Sam wants to reinterpret “mental edge” to be emotional, not cognitive, then maybe it works, although I doubt it. But in the standard definition of mental edge used by athletes (triathletes or golfers,) no.

      In other words, it’s not just that positive thoughts don’t help or that negative thoughts hurt, but rather that any thinking hurts. Negative thinking hurts more, but positive hurts as well.

      It’s all talent, training and pain threshhold.

      1. i m almost retired, remember? i have lots of time.

        more seriously, i used to golf a lot. was even member of a big time country club for awhile and i’ve played clubs like winged foot (lots of trees, btw.) shot 90 a few times. this year took lessons and i’ve been out twice. not exactly avid, admittedly, but i do play.

        as you can tell, i have time to write lengthy, boring comments about s&r columns that no one can make sense of. i must have time.

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