For Tiger Woods, others, golf is all head games

By Steve DiMeglio, USA TODAY

Updated |


SAN DIEGO — Hall of Famer Ben Hogan, who dug his game out of the dirt with relentless practice to win nine major championships and 64 PGA Tour titles, paid homage to the demanding mental aspect of golf when he said the narrowest fairway was between the ears.

  • Tiger Woods tees off in his first tournament of 2011 on Thursday. He was winless in 2010 after struggling with on- and off-course distractions.

    By Jack Gruber, USA TODAY

    Tiger Woods tees off in his first tournament of 2011 on Thursday. He was winless in 2010 after struggling with on- and off-course distractions.

By Jack Gruber, USA TODAY

Tiger Woods tees off in his first tournament of 2011 on Thursday. He was winless in 2010 after struggling with on- and off-course distractions.

Tiger Woods needs no further evidence after 2010.

Shattered by scandal brought to light after a late-night car crash in November 2009, Woods suffered through a crushing collision of embarrassment, anguish and sorrow as he became fodder for tabloids and late-night network talk shows, lost millions of dollars in endorsements and was divorced from his wife of six years, Elin Nordegren.

Through what he says was the worst year of his life, the golf course offered little refuge. As he dealt with personal and legal matters, Woods, who won nine titles in 2009, wasn't in the right frame of mind to play or practice as much as he had in years past and didn't win a single tournament for the first time since he turned pro in 1996.

"I obviously was consumed by other things," says Woods, who spoke to an overflow mass of news media Wednesday on the eve of his season debut in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he has won seven times including the 2008 U.S. Open — his last major championship triumph. "I went down a path I should never have gone, and now the determination is keeping my life in balance."

His route back to the top of the game, he says, begins with his psyche. His nod to the mental part of the game is shared by many in the golf world, where a cottage industry has bloomed with sports psychologists who examine fears, frustrations and doubts that reside in a player's mind. Emphasizing how mental and emotional hazards can be conquered, the psychologists understand a positive outlook translates into better performance on the course.

"In order to play this game at a high level, it helps to have a clear mind," says Woods, who looks healthy and relaxed following a seven-week offseason. "It helps having your life in balance.

"My determination hasn't changed. It's just that I need to be focused and put things into a proper perspective. That is what's most exciting about this year is having the proper perspective on things."

Changes after the fall

Last year, Woods' game was so off he fell from the top of the world rankings for the first time in five years. When he tees off in the first round of the Farmers, he'll do so as the world's No. 3 player, the first time he isn't in the top two since October 2004.

His game last year was unrecognizable at times. After averaging in the 60s throughout his career, Woods needed 71.1 strokes per round in 2010. Last year, he hit 64.1% of his fairways to rank 147th on Tour; in 2009, he ranked 16th at 68.5%. In 2010, he ranked 100th with 3.78 birdies per round; a year earlier, he led the Tour with 4.15.

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"The best evidence we have ever seen that golf is a game played with the mind was provided by Tiger in 2010," former touring pro and current Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee says. "Golf is basically a chess game with an athletic move. There is no other sport where there is so much down time between one shot and the next — and during that time you are fighting an asteroid storm of thoughts. For Tiger, in that five, 10 minutes between shots, he was thinking about his divorce, what TMZ was going to do, and every little thing you can think of. This man who was able to control everything before wasn't able to control anything.

"Tiger is literally (chess grandmaster) Boris Spassky when his mind is right, where he's thinking four, five moves ahead of everyone else in thought and execution. Jack Nicklaus was that way, Ben Hogan was that way. They all knew that they needed to be their best mentally to be their best physically."

Woods, who turned 35 last month, looked more in control of his emotions and game in the latter part of 2010, when a bounce in his step and a smile returned as he played his best golf of the year, especially in the Ryder Cup in Wales and in the Chevron World Challenge in California. Much of his restoration had to do with his third major swing overhaul in 12 years — this one under the tutelage of Sean Foley. The two began working together in August at the PGA Championship, and Woods says he had a great offseason working with Foley and is becoming more comfortable with the swing. Now, Woods says, his mind isn't as consumed with the new swing techniques and positions. He says he has adjusted to the new swing much quicker than he thought he would, freeing his mind of doubt.

That alone will help Woods in 2011, says Frank Nobilo, a former touring pro who is now a Golf Channel analyst.

"Golf is about not thinking about the pink elephant in the room," Nobilo says. "If you're thinking about bad shots, swing thoughts, bad holes, bad moments off the course, you're in trouble.

"In other sports, you follow the moving ball and you are reacting to the situation. When you react to something, you don't have time to think about what can go wrong. In golf, you dictate the action and you have to make the calculation. A lot can get inside your head during that time."

'It haunts you and stays with you'

The model for the silhouette of the NBA logo knows about the dark shadows of golf. Hall of Famer Jerry West, now the executive director of the PGA Tour's Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles, plays to a 3 handicap but struggles with the game whenever he plays.

"There is a distinct courage one must carry to play this game on a very high level," West says. "Golf is a solitaire game. Of all sports, the ones I admire most are the ones where you have to depend on yourself. In team sports, you can count on others.

"In golf, when you hit a bad shot, or when you miss a short putt to win a golf tournament, you have to carry that with you. And that's not easy to do. It haunts you and stays with you."

No one has to tell Cristie Kerr that. The LPGA star and two-time major champion, who won the LPGA Championship by a record 12 shots last season, says she became a new player when she began concentrating on the mental side of golf three years ago.

Kerr, who says she allowed anger to get in her way and bad shots to send her focus askew at times, bonded with Joe Parent, the best selling author of Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game, which details effective methods for working with thoughts and emotions.

In the past, Kerr sometimes stood over the ball before hitting a shot and would fret about this or that. Now, she decides what's she going to do before she approaches the ball, stands over the ball and quickly pulls the trigger. Kerr says it's a basic 1-2-3 process that eliminates confusion and produces better rhythm that carries through the round.

"There are always things that can get in your kitchen, get you off your game, and before last year, we never saw that with Tiger. Last year, we saw he was human and wasn't perfect," Kerr says. "When your mind isn't fully focused on the task, you have a feeling of uneasiness when you get inside the ropes.

"Sometimes you have to force yourself to think of other things when the so-called demons creep in. I would say it's similar to being a pitcher in baseball because you are all alone out there doing it yourself. Even though a pitcher has his teammates, he's in control. The mental side pitchers go through — the isolation, the control over everything — is what we go through."

More so for golfers, says one of the best pitchers of all time. Greg Maddux, who won 355 games in 23 Major League Baseball seasons and was the first to win four consecutive Cy Young awards, won't argue against golf being the toughest sport mentally to play.

"For one, it's five hours long," says Maddux, who played in the celebrity field in last week's Bob Hope Classic. "In golf, a lot of things can creep in there mentally, and that's why I think golf's a lot tougher in that respect. When you're out there, you can hear the outhouses open and close. It's pretty quiet. It's easy to hear guys talk. At stadiums, everybody is screaming and yelling. It's a steady loud noise, so you don't hear anything. In golf, you hear everything."

Woods, 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink says, has heard enough about his troubles and how he no longer can dominate the game.

"Whenever you doubt Tiger Woods, he will prove you wrong," Cink says. "His biggest obstacle as he tries to come back and be himself again, to be the Tiger Woods we all know, is himself, because if he gets his mind back and still wants to win, he's still better than everyone else."

Contributing: Bob Nightengale

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