As Tiger Woods prepares to host his tournament at Congressional CC this week, I've reflected on his career and started wondering what is it that drives him in this game.
A good friend of mine, and the coach of many tour players, once told me that what separates Tiger from everyone else in the game (even Jack Nicklaus) is that he always tries to find a way to improve. No matter how well he plays, no matter how much he wins, he wants to become even better. He constantly pushes himself to the limits.
Tiger is always looking for ways to improve his technique and his ability to hit the ball better.
He is in the process of rebuilding his swing for a third time. Most players develop a swing at a relatively young age and then "tweak" it as they get older. But rarely do they rebuild--even once--but Tiger has three times.
Ultimately, Tiger won't settle for being the "best today." He wants to be the "best ever."
But how is one to validate such a goal? In golf, what does "being the best ever" mean?
Obviously, there are the records. Tiger has most of the important ones nearly locked in.
The Record Books
-- Years ranked No. 1:
A relatively recent concept in the history of the game, the exact formula to determine the world No. 1 took quite awhile to make sense. When Tiger was still growing as a golfer, the world rankings did not have much importance. We can be almost certain that even though Tiger dominated the rankings like no one will ever do again, being ranked No. 1 in the world was never an explicit goal of his.
-- Player of the year awards:
This award is generally given to the player with the most wins in a single year on tour. Tom Watson held the most (six-time player of the year) for a long time. More precisely, until Tiger-time. Tiger's 10 player of the year awards are safe for as long as golf will be played.
-- Most wins on tour:
Sam Snead is at 82. Tiger is now at 73. While there's no guarantee, Tiger has many years and many regular tour events to reach this record. Winning on tour is never easy, but unlike the majors, regular tour events can be nabbed with a couple of good days of golf. Tiger proved how easy it is for him to win on tour this past week at the Memorial.
-- Most consecutive wins on tour:
Byron Nelson won 11 tournaments is a row. Tiger had a realistic shot at it when he won seven in a row back in 2006-2007. Unfortunately, another streak like this will never be matched, not even by Tiger. There are way too many factors in the modern game keeping this streak unattainable. However, Tiger's streak for most consecutive cuts made at 142 (a run that will never again be equaled in its own right) meets the record for "Most Consecutive On Tour," a draw between Byron and Tiger.
-- The Grand Slam:
This is a concept that dates back to Bobby Jones winning the four majors back in 1930. The Grand Slam is a fantasy goal for many golfers, but hardly achievable. On the other hand, Nicklaus had somewhat of a shot at it back in 1972 after taking the first two majors of the year before Lee Trevino stole the British Open from him and Tony Jacklin with an improbable chip in, no one will ever come as close as Tiger when he accomplished his Tiger Slam. This alone puts Tiger in a world of his own.
-- Most Majors:
The main goal that Tiger set for himself has always been Jack's 18 professional majors. This goal, which seemed just a matter of time, is not so certain. Of course, his success at The Memorial revived everyone’s expectations but his lack of performance on the weekend at The Olympic Club casts the shadow of doubt upon him once again.
Beyond records, there is Mystique
Recently I have come to believe that Tiger is searching for something even greater than records. Records are for humans. I believe he is searching for the elements that create legends.
In this respect, Tiger is looking for more than 18 majors. He wants to do something that no one has ever done--beat the very game of golf itself.
That means a complete mastery of the ball. There has been talk that Tiger wants to be able to hit all different ball flights on command. He works a lot with launch monitor technology to reinforce his work on swing technique and to help him hit all the shots.
Tiger has become obsessed with technique.
In this sense, his drive is more reminiscent of Ben Hogan than it is of Jack Nicklaus. Whereas Nicklaus is the benchmark for wins, Hogan is the benchmark for mastering the ball. Nicklaus knew how to win but didn't master the ball like Hogan. Nicklaus has wins. Hogan had mystique.
More than the wins, Tiger wants that Hogan mystique. We respect Nicklaus as the greatest champion and talk about his wins but we tell stories about Hogan. Stories are always bigger than facts. Stories, not records, make legends. Wins keep people alive on paper; Stories keep people alive in our minds.
Hogan was the best at controlling the ball. How do we know? Because that’s what the stories tell us.
One of the odd things about golf is that it is not always the best swings that win. We also know that golfers who have searched for the perfect swing often lose focus on winning. Most players who have tried to rebuild their swings ultimately faded away as their efforts on improving the swing took them away from the things that are needed to win tournaments.
Nicklaus himself said that as a kid he dreamt of having the time to perfect his swing, but when he turned pro and had all the time he wanted, he realized that such a goal was just a dream.
Winning is about properly handling one’s lack of perfection.
Tiger said in an interview recently, “I’ve been here before,” meaning that he has rebuilt his swing before and has been through the part of struggling with hitting the ball under pressure.
He also implied that he will inevitably work through it and be even better than before--kind of a warning to everyone listening.
The problem that Tiger now faces is that he needs to win. He needs at least four more majors or his numerous records will have a metaphorical asterisk next to them reading, “didn’t catch Jack.” Legends don't come with an asterisk.
Stephen Moskal is currently the Director of Instruction for Golf Swing Exchange, an innovative on-line coaching platform whose goal is to revolutionize the ability for people to learn golf. A former professional golfer in Europe, Moskal turned pro in 1993 as a member of the French National Circuit and also spent time on the United Kingdom Mastercard Tour and the European Challenge Tour. Following a seven-year professional career, Moskal turned to teaching full-time in 1999. A 1990 graduate of Furman University with a degree in philosophy, Moskal was a four year letter winner with the Paladins and was a member of the academic honor roll. Most recently, Stephen studied under Top 100 instructor Mitchell Spearman, best known for working with major champions Nick Faldo and Ian Baker Finch. Stephen is also the Head Golf Coach at Marymount University in Arlington, VA.
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