Tiger Woods and the Magic Touch of Golf, Part I

Will LeivenbergFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2010

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 11:  Tiger Woods plays a bunker shot on the second hole during the final round of the 2010 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11, 2010 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Michael Jordan may have sank three-pointers and split seas of seven-foot defenders with the ease of a paper boy handling his route, but I bet he couldn’t hit a golf-ball from 15-feet through densely thick grass with the precise backspin to make it stop on command within inches of the hole.

The truth is, what athletes can do—leaping massive hurdles, dunking basketballs from the free-throw line, pummeling baseballs to the opposite field, making diving catches in the end-zone—is simply remarkable and beyond the average player’s grasp.

Golfers deserve a special nod within the mystifying realm of sports. But admit it, on at least one occasion, you’ve scoffed at golf: whether as a sport not aerobic enough or because it involves a stable, unmoving ball, or simply because it’s played primarily by a bunch of rich, country-club, white guys, you have hated on it.

But the children’s idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover,” has never been as apparent, as valuable, and as true than within ‘the short game’ of golf—involving anything and everything on, and around, the putting green.

With the exception of few sports, golf challenges competitors with brand new, grueling conditions week in and week out. Kind of like Ron Artest’s ridiculous hair-style variety, green speed and slope ranges across the golf spectrum. Some days golfers encounter sluggishly slow and flat greens, but then just days later are thrown into undulating putting surfaces as quick as a table-top.

Speed and scale of greens are just a piece of this punishing puzzle. When golfers don’t hit the green, it’s not like when a quarterback overthrows a receiver and gets another opportunity to make a first down or when a pitcher hurls a wild pitch, but has the chance to bounce back.

Instead, golfers miss the green and its kind of like anything is possible, but not in the Disney sense, where everyone rides off into the sunset and lives happily ever.

This is more like in “The Shining” sense, where dark, desolate despair awaits its next victim.

We’re talking finding golf balls buried beneath unfathomable layers of wet, thick grass that makes it nearly impossible to get the club on the ball. Or imagine finding the ball propped up on the lip of a ten-foot sand trap, lending no chance of a balanced set-up; kind of like being a Los Angeles Dodgers fan and watching the San Francisco Giants win the World Series—utterly heartbreaking.

Or a personal favorite, discovering that the ball has inexplicably been caught between that first level of rough, chunky grass and the finely cut, thin grass. By the way, good luck getting out of that mess with a three-foot metal stick and a ball the size of a macaroon.

The only player to ever make these shots look like a piece of cake was Tiger Woods.

It wasn't that he made it look effortless. It was more just like you could visibly observe Woods strategizing the shot, thinking of options and perceiving the challenge as an opportunity to be creative, rather than being stuck between a rock and hard place. What truly separates him from his peers is that he did in the most clutch moments.

The most luminous example was at the Masters in 2005 on the par-3, 16th hole, which may go down as the greatest shot in history due to the fusion of its insane difficulty and incredible execution under immense, palpable pressure.

It was as though he’d hit shots and have command over how they landed, rolled, spun, or stopped. He was a wizard on the greens and though he’s definitely in a period of transition, if he can revamp his short game, the rest will undoubtedly follow.

In golf, kind of like in life, you are responsible for every shot you hit: no shot clock, teammates, allies, scapegoats, do-over’s or second chances. Instead, it’s a game of recovery, where those who can remedy their first mistake and adapt will thrive.

In Part II, we will pay homage to ten professionals in the game today who’ve distinguished themselves from the rest because of their unrivaled ability to adapt to the capricious nature of the golf course. Their craftiness on and around the putting surface has propelled them to the elite in the sport and with every chip, sand-shot, and putt, we revel in their magic touch.