Winning and losing is a part of life and apart from attitude.
On Thursday, April 10, 1997, Tiger Woods teed off at 12:44 PM in his first professional appearance at the Masters. He had turned pro the previous fall, winning the Las Vegas Invitational and the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic in October. He captured the Mercedes Championship in January and rolled into Augusta, GA, with a ton of momentum.
And yet, despite his early and massive success, the elders of the tour said Woods would have to wait on his first Master’s victory. He had missed the cut as an amateur the previous year and placed 41st the year before. Augusta National is one of the most challenging courses on tour, and almost all of the top players over the past fifty years, including Faldo, Nicklaus, and Palmer, did not win in their first few attempts. It often took five or more tries to finally seal the deal.
While Tiger is known for being a student of the game, he clearly wasn’t paying any attention to the pundits as their predictions made absolutely zero difference to him. As I’ve heard him say many times over his career, he never entered a tournament he didn’t expect to win. He was paired with Nick Faldo in his opening round, and neither played very well on the front nine. Faldo was a six-time major winner, so maybe he received some slack from the media; however, many were already writing off Woods as being in over his head. And then came the second nine.
Tiger shot +4 on the front nine with four bogeys and no birdies. He shot -6 on the back nine with four birdies and an eagle leaving him 3 shots behind the leader, John Houston. He was one of only a few players in the field to break par due to the challenging course conditions, and the way he did it made his score all the more impressive. His calm demeanor during his post-round press conference must have been unnerving to the rest of the competitors. Woods took the open nine entirely in stride and made up for his sloppy play on the back nine. Everyone knew he was good, but no one saw this coming.
The best athletes in the world have an uncanny knack for staying in the present moment and having a selective memory. The best professional golfers play each shot one at a time. The bad shots are quickly erased from their memory banks, and the great shots are saved to leverage for future reference. Clearly, Tiger and other high achievers think differently than the average person.
On Friday, Tiger was paired with PGA Champion and accomplished tour veteran Paul Azinger. Azinger had never played with Tiger and said after the round that his shots were hit with such integrity and authority, and the other players definitely noticed. He said his tee shots, especially the driver seemed to stay in the air forever.
“I can still see that white ball framed against the dark trees in the distance, then the blue sky, and then the green fairway — it was a bullet that seemed to never stop.”
After a -2 under performance on the front nine, Tiger was inching closer to the lead. With pars on the first two holes of Amen Corner, he stepped on the 13th tee box only one shot back. Three shots later, his triumphant eagle gave him the lead for the first time, and it was a lead he would never relinquish.
With his wisdom and intuition, CBS anchor Jim Nance quietly stated, “Let the record show that a little after 5:30 on this Friday, April the 11th, Tiger takes the lead for the very first time at the Masters.”
On Saturday, Tiger was paired with Colin Montgomery, who was very well respected as an established player at the top of his game. Montgomery, full of self-confidence, made the mistake of calling Tiger out before their round. He said that, given his greater experience, he liked his chances against the 21-year-old rookie. That statement was the equivalent of waving a red flag in the face of a charging bull.
Before Saturday’s round, Tiger’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, came over and stood next to his star pupil. He said, “Let’s go show Colin Montgomerie who you really are.” Woods responded, “Oh, don’t worry.” And that’s exactly what Tiger did. He buried Montgomery by 9 shots, carding a 65 versus Monty’s 74. Afterward, in his post-round press conference, Colin took back his earlier comments and stated emphatically that there was no way Tiger would lose the next day.
On Sunday, Tiger played his final round with Costantino Rocco, finishing a record-breaking 12 shots in front of the field. The round was not error-free, with two bogeys on the front nine; however, combined with five birdies and eleven pars, it would be enough to shatter the record books. Further, it demolished racial barriers that had existed for years about a person of color being able to win golf’s most tradition-bound event. Tiger was the youngest ever to wear the green jacket, and his win set a new standard of excellence that the rest of the tour would struggle to match for years to come.
Unlike professional baseball, there is no perfect game in golf. In the history of major league baseball, there have been 23 perfect games. The closest thing to that in golf is the sub-60 round; there have only been 12. Eleven men have shot 59s; Jim Furyk holds the record for the lone 58. Oddly enough, there have been approximately 4,000 people climbing Mt. Everest. It’s interesting to think that 333 times as many people have climbed the tallest mountain on the planet compared to the rare dozen from the PGA tour who have shot below 60.
As an odd side note, Tiger shot a 59 with his good buddy, Mark O’Meara, at Isleworth, their home course in Windermere, Fl., the week before his Master’s victory. Woods said it was the easiest 59 ever as he pared two of the par 5s. It could have definitely been lower. O’Meara said he knew something was wrong when he glanced at the scorecard after the front nine and saw that he was down by a considerable margin.
While Tiger’s 59 didn’t count in the record books, it set him up for a needed pep talk the following week at Augusta. On the 15th tee Thursday afternoon, there was a bit of a wait, and O’Meara found Woods sitting on a bench looking reasonably dejected. He quickly reminded him of the beating he had dished out the week before. O’Meara said, “Dude, what’s going on, man? You never play like this when you play with me at home. All you need to do is pretend like you’re playing against me. You shoot 59, you make birdies, you make holes-in-one. I mean, gimme a break.”
Apparently, O’Meara’s timely jab spurred Tiger on, and he went on to shoot -6 on the back and come within striking distance of the lead he would eventually take the next day. And at that point, it was game over.
Closing thoughts for my readers:
Dr. Bob Rotella wrote the book, Golf is Not a Game of Perfect, which is a perfect metaphor for life. All professional sports, including golf and life, are about managing mistakes. By all means, strive for excellence; however, be very careful not to become overly caught up in the pursuit of perfection. With the rare exception of the perfect game in baseball, there are very few examples of the perfect performance in sports and life.
In fact, it’s been said that one of the fastest ways to accelerate success is to fail. Leadership expert John Maxwell wrote the book, Failing Forward many years ago, where he teaches that one of the single most significant factors in determining success is your response to failure. Because failure is inevitable regardless of your pursuit.
The critical element is your mindset and perception of failure. Zig Ziglar said, “A failure is an event, not a person.” And Thomas J. Watson may have said it best with the following:
“You can be discouraged by failure, or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes, make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success – on the far side of failure.”
Tiger could have played his way right out of the tournament after his opening front nine score of 40; however, he knew that professional golf majors, especially the Masters, are marathons and not sprints. He stayed calm and made the needed adjustments at the turn, which yielded completely different results on the back nine. This is in stark contrast to the all-or-nothing thinking exemplified by the average person, where one significant setback can cause them to go off the rails completely. The secret is maintaining a long-term perspective while staying in the present moment. This can be easier said than done; however, it’s a skill that all top performers possess and one that can definitely be learned with persistent effort.
Best of luck in your journey.