August 3, 2009

What Can YOU Learn From Tiger Woods' Game?

A Lot, Actually

Many of the golfers that I know, especially young ones, want to "be like Tiger." Of course, that's not going to happen for nearly any of them -- for years, even top PGA pros like Phil Mickelson have wanted to "be like Tiger" but the truth is even they can't match him, on most days anyway. So what chance do you, Douglas D. Duffer have? Not much, at least from a ball-striking point of view. But there are a lot of ways that you can emulate Woods on the course when you are playing your next $2 Nassau that can help you count the sweetest cash of all: money fresh from your buddies' wallets. Here are a few:

Take a good look at your own game and you will find that many of the "mistakes" you make are before you ever swing the club.

Tiger Woods almost always clears his mind of his last shot before he starts his routine for his next shot. He has talked about this repeatedly through the years, and it's something we all should learn to do. No matter how good or how bad your last shot was, that was then and the ball is where it is now, and awaits your best effort.

Another thing that many folks do is they let their strategy get dictated to them by their opponent. This is something Tiger Woods never does except possibly in match play situations, where the rules are of course different.

Say, for example, you are playing against someone who just bombs it off of the tee. Most people have a natural instinct to hit their own ball further in order to keep up. Bad idea. More than likely you will throw your rhythm off and as a result hit poorer tee shots, not better. The whole chain of errors that led to that tee shot being in the wrong place started by deciding to go for more distance. Instead, accept the fact that you might be a few yards behind, but you'll probably be in the nice short grass instead of in the rough or worse, the trees or the water. You will have a lot better chance of making a better second shot and then you can return serve to your opponent and put the pressure back on him or her.

Play Within Your Game and Make the Other Guy Make the Mistakes.

Taking the example above a little further: ever noticed how a lot of golfers melt down when they play with Tiger Woods? You can say that it's the crowds, it's Tiger, it's the pressure of the situation, but a simpler explanation is that Tiger plays his own game excellently and his opponents make mistakes because Tiger rarely does when it matters. From that, you can learn two things: first of all, if you play your game within your skill-set, no matter how advanced you are, you'll score better. That in and of itself will put incredible pressure on an opponent to perform their utmost best, and you will often find that they will melt down when they feel that constant pressure. It may require patience on your part, but more often than not, it does happen and you can take advantage of it.

Find your personal weaknesses and practice and improve them until they are strengths

Early in his career, Tiger Woods had an indifferent short game, especially when it came to his bunker play. While he was a decent short-game artiste, no one would ever confuse him with Phil Mickelson, who seems to have been given a great short-game as a birth-right. Through the years, however, Woods has worked diligently on his short game and is now (in my opinion) the equal of Mickelson, and perhaps an even better player. Woods is solid in the sand and green side, and that's due to practice, practice, practice.

It's said that most of your golf swings will be taken from within 120 yards or so, and if you think about it, that's a fact. That should tell you that your Pitching Wedge, Sand Wedge and other wedges are extremely important clubs and that you can drop your handicap by mastering them and being very handy with them.

Oddly, however, if you visit a typical driving range you won't see someone pounding 70 yard shots, you will see them pounding driver after driver, or long iron after long iron, bucket after bucket. Sure, you need to be good off of the tee, and while you shouldn't ignore it, if it is the only shot you practice, other aspects of your game won't be all they can be. And if you do indeed take most of your shots from 120 yards in, then, ahem, doesn't it make sense to make that a core strength?

Same thing for green-side chips and bunker shots. Both aren't hard technically, but they do require a lot of touch and reliability to pull off. Ask yourself -- how many practice shots do you take from 3, 5, or 10 yards off of the green in different conditions and with varying lies? Do you practice short bunker shots? Long bunker shots?

If not, you've got some work to do.

Short Putts: Own the Hole From Within Four Feet.

Tiger Woods did not miss a putt within four feet in last week's Buick Open. He hit over forty of them, and as a result, he gave away exactly zero strokes as a result.

Most of us can't say that. And let's be honest: we really should be at least 97.5% that good from that close to the hole. There is no excuse not to be. After all, you can practice that putt in your house at night on a putting matt.

Again, you might have some work to do.

Finally, a little gamesmanship never hurts, as long as you are a good sport.

Tiger Woods' gamesmanship on the course is legendary, and it crawls in his opponents' heads like a worm inside an apple. Two things can be learned here: first, you have to learn to not let that happen, and second, how to toss a little jab every now and again. It's okay to do it.

Here's How I Put It All Together To Close A Tight Match

Recently, I played in a match play match against an opponent very evenly matched against me. It was all fun and games as we went back and forth to the 15 hole, where his 3 beat my 4 and put him ahead one. On 16, I had missed a long putt for birdie to win the hole, leaving the ball about 1.5 feet away, down and sidehill to the cup, for another chance to win and bring the match back to all-square. The dinker was a slippery little devil that I hoped he would just give me. Nuh uh, putt it. "I've seen you miss those," he said.

Yep, true, but what he said put the thought in my mind and made me tentative. And yes, I missed it. Bad for me, but score one for him for putting a negative thought in my mind at just the wrong moment. And so it goes, I should not have listened, I should have walked away and I should have gathered my thoughts to make a putt I would my 19 of 20 other times. I learned a lesson and I gathered some resolve to never make that mistake again.

The next hole, I won, mainly by playing the three shot 5-par the way it was designed and leaving myself a nice birdie putt and making him perform a tougher shot to match me. He didn't, ended up in the deep marsh that protects the green, and away we go to 18 All Square.

Eagle Ridge's 18th is a hole I call "Waterloo."

The reason I do that is because 18 has water all the way down the left, the fairway edges drop steeply to the banks of the surrounding lake, seemingly sucking wayward tee shots into the water. The right side is short, and there is a creek down most its length with the same cruel features as the left side of the hole. Going over the bunkers leads to Death Valley, a place your golf ball might visit but will never leave alive. As if that is not enough, the fairway ends at the if you don't want a six or worse on your card, you hit the fairway and you put your approach shot on the right part of the green.

Let's put it this way: Tom Kite designed Waterloo, and he, a US Open Champion, scored a six on it - from the same tees we were playing.

Rather than chancing driver, I hit three wood there and then I lay up to the end of the fairway, preferably to sand or pitching wedge range for a forced carry to the green. That's what I did. My opponent? He hit driver, but left himself a 165 yard shot to the green, almost every inch of it carry over the water. On the way to my much shorter tee shot, he remarks "I was surprised that you left it short on purpose."

Well, here was my opening, and it was almost too easy. I said to him "that's because I am taking the water out of play." And then I laid up to 120 moments later, leaving him and opening and a chance to make a decision. One of three things could happen and only one was bad: he could lay up and nothing changed, he could hit it over and onto the green and put pressure on me to stick my approach and hope he missed his birdie putt, or, he could put it into the water. I gave him a decision on purpose and made sure that he knew the water awaited any mistake. Adrenaline being what it is, I liked my chances because anything but a perfect swing would leave me at a great advantage on the ultimate hole of our match.

He decided to go for it to get on the green. Good for him. But I had returned the favor of putting something between the ears, and I know he looked at that lake, then at his six iron and said to himself "don't putt it in the lake."

When his ball splashed, I knew the match was over. I took an extra club, hit my ball just over the back and let him take his drop. If he had been feeling pressure before, it was now ten times greater. Seconds later, we were shaking hands as a second set of ripples indicated where the ball fell in the water.

The lesson here? First, a well placed thought can make a difference, but that knife can cut both ways. If you find yourself on the receiving side, walk away, gather your thoughts, clear it out of your mind by thinking of something else unrelated (I hum a favorite song until I hear the lyrics) and then go about your business. If s/he does it again, repeat the process. They will get the point after two or three times. Secondly, you can do the same thing, but save it for when it matters most...and be subtle about it.

Woods is famous for these little Jedi Mind Tricks -- Phil Mickelson claims that Butch Harmon has taught him what Tiger does, which only confirms that Woods does something to get in his opponents' heads. But you'd never know, unless you were in the gallery. Ben Hogan would do the same thing, except he used silence has his weapon of intimidation. The Hawk would be silent, even if his opponent got a hole in one. That would crawl in your head, don't you think?

The real bottom line here is to have a stronger mind than anyone you play, and Woods has it, Hogan had it and you can have it too - if you play within your game, if you master your weaknesses and if you don't let the other guy dictate your thinking.

And that's what you can learn and use from one Eldrick Tiger Woods.

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