He has a special mind

Tiger Woods’ game is presently not yet sandpapered to the point of optimum efficiency, but he will be a factor at the Masters because putting is always a factor at the Masters. He cannot overwhelm a field anymore, he cannot hit longer than so many anymore, but what separates him still is his toughness. He may not win the Masters, but if there’s a 14-footer to decide it, he won’t be scared, writes Rohit Brijnath.

It happens to everyone and it will happen to him. He’ll start missing putts, crucial putts, have-to-make putts. His confidence will go, his fingers will twitch, his technique will betray him. And we’ll say with a sigh, well, he’s not the Tiger Woods he used to be.

It is the only thing we know he can’t do. Beat time. Everything, and everyone else, he seems to. Woods won the US Open on a broken knee in June 2008, was out for nine months, arrives at his third tournament back this March, is five shots back on the final day at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and sinks a birdie putt in near darkness on the 18th hole to win.

Evidently he’s never heard of rust. Nor read the reports that suggested he’s not the same Woods. This does not mean he will win the Masters this week (he hasn’t won there since 2005). But it means that when the Masters ends on Sunday (April 12), it will be astonishing if his name is not in contention (he was tied 3rd in 2006, tied 2nd in 2007 and 2nd in 2008).

Woods has been called the “opposite of hope” by a writer; he is also a murderer of surprise. He cannot win everything, but almost no one in sport wears pressure as consistently as him and no one in golf wins as consistently as him. Measure him, for instance, against his rivals, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh. Woods has played 239 events on the PGA Tour, Phil Mickelson 390, Vijay Singh 410. Woods has won 27.6 per cent of tournaments entered, Phil 9.2, Vijay 8.2. And Woods’ percentage of top 10 finishes is 63.6, Phil’s is 36.1 and Vijay’s is 40.2. It is the difference between great and genius, between tough and unyielding.

In a recent tennis match, Victoria Azarenka was asked how she upset the higher-ranked Dinara Safina, when down 1-3 in the third set. Her explanation was interesting: “The image I had in my head was actually (Rafael) Nadal, the way he plays all the time. No matter what, he fights. For me, it’s the best mentality anybody has ever had.” Golfers will tell her, Woods is tougher.

In fact, they will argue he is mentally the hardiest sportsman since Lance Armstrong gave up his ownership of the Tour de France. Of course, Woods’ sport is static and this is a problem, for Nadal is relentless even as his lungs bellow and his feet race. Woods’ art is not interrupted either, no one is trying to stop him as they do Lionel Messi or Kobe Bryant, and to keep your resolve and concentration under physical pressure, well, that is a gift, too. Still, it is intriguing that a golfer should even be entered in such a conversation.

Woods’ mind is special, he does not let us into it, he hides its secrets as a magician does his tricks of illusion, but it is, if we take a little medical and journalistic license, the most interesting muscle in a very fit man. At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he did not play brilliantly, his short irons were disobedient, but he found enough brilliance when it mattered. One might say he was rescued by his mind. Said fellow player Zach Johnson: “I am in awe. I don’t want to say shock. I’m in awe.”

Woods thinks clearly, rapidly, coolly, his processing of information is staggering, and that 15-foot putt which he sank for his comeback win is proof. Even if you are not a watcher of golf, Woods’ quote about the putt is worth examining for his attention to detail.

Said Woods: “I kept telling myself obviously with the temperature getting a little cooler, this putt is going to be a little bit slower because of that. On top of that, the putt is uphill into the grain left to right, make sure you hit it hard to get it up to the hole, and if anything, if you make any mistake over-release the blade and miss it left so at least it has a chance with all the dew on the ground with the grain that it could snag and come in. (But) I hit a pure putt. I hit it really solid and it held its line all the way there.”

Temperature, dew, grain, snag, over-release! This was golfing intellect, technique and courage under pressure. A week later, Greg Norman would say this particular skill of Woods, to putt with precise calm, was beyond even Jack Nicklaus. Said Norman: “Tiger to me is the best (clutch putter). I think he and Nicklaus are equal (putting from) inside six feet. Outside nine feet, Woods is by far the best.”

Woods sinks putts because he is tough; he is tough because he doesn’t panic; he doesn’t panic because he’s been in this position before; he keeps getting into such positions because he keeps practising for them. What makes him, and Nadal, frightening is that you might beat them but never out-prepare them. Here, have a look at Woods’ practice schedule, revealed last week in the Washington Post:

At 6 a.m. he begins a 90-minute aerobic and weightlifting workout. Then breakfast. From 9 to 11 he’s at the practice tee. From 11 to 11:30 a.m. he works on putting. From 11:30 to 12:30 he plays nine holes. Then lunch. At 1 p.m. he returns to hit practice balls till 3 p.m. From 3 to 4 p.m. he chips. At 4 p.m. he plays another nine holes. He hits more practice balls from 5 to 5.30 p.m. and then hones his putting for another 30 minutes till 6 p.m.

Woods’ game is presently not yet sandpapered to the point of optimum efficiency, but he will be a factor at the Masters because putting is always a factor at the Masters. He cannot overwhelm a field anymore, he cannot hit longer than so many anymore, but what separates him still is this toughness. On April 12, he may not win but if there’s a 14-footer to decide it, he won’t be scared.