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Leadership: Crouching Competition, Rising Tiger

“I’ve got holes in my game.” That’s one of the first things Tiger Woods told the media after his first victory of the 2008 PGA season in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse” was also part of his reflective soliloquy on his play in his first tourney of the year in which he nearly lapped the field, winning by eight strokes.

“I’ve got holes in my game.” That’s one of the first things Tiger Woods told the media after his first victory of the 2008 PGA season in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse” was also part of his reflective soliloquy on his play in his first tourney of the year in which he nearly lapped the field, winning by eight strokes.

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So is Tiger playing mind games with us? Is he indulging in the de rigueur self-deprecation that we like to see in good athletes? Or was he giving us a peek inside his psyche, a glimpse at what makes him so great? I opt for the later. Quite simply, at 32 years old with $76 million in winnings and 62 PGA titles, including 13 Majors, he is the very best golfer of his time and perhaps and very likely the best there has ever been.

The media drools over Tiger’s prowess typically falling over themselves to come up with new superlatives to define his performance. Hyperbole, sure! But it doesn’t make the compliments less true. Despite the drooling from an admiring broadcast crew, Tiger isn’t buying it. Golf is a fickle game; and humbling one, but one perfectly suited for a man who knows himself, his strengths and his weaknesses, and his desire to dominate. What accounts for Tiger’s ability is not his swing, which for the record does produce errant shots. It is his tenacity, his desire, his resilience, and quite simply his dream to get better and better. So what can we learn from Tiger’s dominance?

Know your roots. Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, taught him the game. A rough and tough ex ¬Green Beret Vietnam vet, Earl shaped Tiger’s early game. He also provided lessons in toughness by taking him out to play with his friends and then razzing Tiger to see if he could rattle him. The two were very close and Earl’s death in 2006 hit Tiger hard. But as Tiger confessed in a 60 Minutes interview, his father was the softie; his mother, Tida, a Thai immigrant who married Earl, was the taskmaster. Unlike parents who push their kids in sports, the Woods held Tiger back, especially Tida. Golf was a treat, a reward for doing his homework, playing piano, and being a well-behaved kid.

Know your game. Look at a professional golfer’s irons; you will find a dime size indentation in the center of the club face typically right in the sweet spot. That means a professional is striking the ball “perfect” every single time. Only for them it’s not perfect; most pros figure they make good contact three in ten times, akin to a .300 hitter in baseball. But here’s the difference. Their misses are most often better than any amateur’s best and their misses are recoverable. That is the struck ball does not always land where intended but the pro can play from that spot. In this aspect, Tiger excels. No one gets up and down a course (making pars) better than Tiger. So often his drives are wide of the fairway. No matter, he hits from the rough and onto the green. That’s resilience

Know your desire. When he was a kid, just competing in junior golf (and winning), he had a poster in his room of Jack Nicklaus, the player who has won more majors – professional golf’s measure of greatness – than anyone. Eighteen. Tiger, so the story goes, was determined to break that record. He won three titles in junior golf, three in amateur and now with 13 majors as a professional he is well on his way. Odds on he will do it. But he won’t stop at the record; he’ll keep pushing himself because he loves the game, the competition, and the desire to win, win, win.

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Tiger may be humble in his work ethic, but he not humble in his ambition. He admitted on his website that a Grand Slam – winning all four of pro golf’s majors – is possible. He also told reporters at Torrey Pines that his best years are ahead of him. His mindset, complete with his skill set, make him the most formidable athlete of his era. The gap between him and the next best golfer – be it Phil Mickelson, V.J. Singh or Ernie Els – often seems as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. Yet Tiger plays with the realization that anyone on the tour that day can beat him. And some do, but not the same guy nor even the same few. Tiger dominates.

For those you don’t know golf or even like it – and you are the majority – give yourself a treat. Some Sunday afternoon this year, tune into a tournament when Tiger is playing. You will see history in the making. You will be watching a man at the peak of his powers, someone like a Picasso with a brush, Nureyev in flight, a Horowitz at the keyboard, or a Pavarotti in voice. Tiger Woods is the best there is. Enjoy it. Talent and skills like his do not come around even once a generation.

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert: Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com