Tiger crafts history shot by shot

July 24, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

GIVE TIGER WOODS a choice between talking about making golf history or talking about, say, the latest adjustment he has made in his swing plane, and he will take the latter. Any day. Any time.

If the choice is to elaborate on becoming the youngest golfer ever to win all four major tournaments, or, say, a new toe position he is experimenting with on his putting stance, Woods would much rather talk X's and O's.

He's rewriting history with every shot now, yesterday winning the British Open by eight strokes at St. Andrews, just a month after winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes at Pebble Beach. Hope you saw some of it. His back-to-back runaways on hallowed acreage will go down as golf's version of baseball pitcher Cy Young's 511 career wins. It's only going to happen once.

But if you're waiting for Woods, 24, to get all misty and weak-kneed about what he hath wrought, you'd better pull up a chair and grab a book. You're in for a long wait.

The secret to Woods' suddenly overwhelming supremacy, promised for so long, lies in the mental approach he has sharpened over the past few years. And that approach is based on a dirty, little secret that anyone who has spent any time around him understands:

He's just a pitching coach in spirit.

The "next Michael Jordan" is - shhhh - really a mechanic at heart, a technocrat, a "little white ball" wonk. He's obsessed far more with the details and vagaries of his craft than his accomplishments or the lessons of his game's history.

Oh, sure, he's a smart guy and a shrewd guy and he sees the big picture, especially on a day such as yesterday, when he chews up the field on a course regarded as the cradle of the game.

"It's the ultimate," Woods said.

But if he sees the big picture, he doesn't dwell on it. He dwells on making sure his "swing thoughts" stay positive and his shoulder turn generates exactly the right amount of torque.

History? It's fine and interesting enough, but frankly, to Woods, it's just a perk that comes with good ball-striking habits.

He's a purist. Maybe the ultimate purist. Give him a choice between winning four major titles by age 24 or uncovering the perfect swing - a subjective feat deemed impossible - and he might give back the hardware.

Sure, he's also intensely competitive and blessed beyond measure with a physical gift for the game.

"He's raised the bar to a level only that he can jump [over]," five-time British Open winner Tom Watson said.

But it's what you can't see - what's going on in his head - that's really putting him so far over the top this summer that his competition needs binoculars to catch a fleeting glance of him.

When he turned pro at age 20 and won the Masters at 21 three years ago, he wasn't mature enough or confident enough yet to force his obsession on others. He let others tell him what to do or even what to think sometimes. His father. His agents. His caddie.

He was a typical, young superstar, given to soaring highs but also to making mistakes on and off the course. Remember the embarrassing Gentleman's Quarterly profile in which he told numerous off-color jokes? Remember the Team Tiger entourage?

What's different now, three years later? He's more mature, more self-confident and more in control of his life and his mind. His father doesn't tell him what to do. He fired a caddie who was becoming a distraction. He makes his business decisions. He gives few interviews other than those after rounds, and whenever he does talk, he says little of interest. He's polite, but he obviously doesn't want to invest or engage.

Away from the course, he isn't a party animal, and he's too smart to let the youthful temptations that have wrecked so many athletes keep him from his destiny.

Basically, he has winnowed the distractions out of his life, leaving him free to focus on his true love, the fundamentals of his craft.

His game.

Oh, sure, his physical prowess probably has as much to do with his success as his mental approach. He used to struggle with inconsistent iron play and wildness off the tee, but that's ancient history now. Not only is he long and accurate with every club, and unerring with his putter, but he's become quite the inventive shot-maker. Did you see the mini-golf approach shot he used on Friday, knocking a ball up a hill and back down near the hole?

But make no mistake, it's his mental approach that's making the difference now. It takes a rare athlete to block out the kind of hype he's getting and still deliver home runs on cue. He didn't stumble even once yesterday, despite a comfortable lead and the weight of history bearing down.

He was the same as he ever is, no matter what situation he finds himself in. He didn't focus on meanings or context or anything other than the next shot.

It's all the golf with him.

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