When I joined the PGA Tour in 1996, I was a pretty good player and managed to win a couple of tournaments early on. But I knew I still had a lot to learn. That was fine with me. Part of the fun is building on your strengths, erasing your weaknesses, learning new shots and improving your course management and mental control.
In the last four years, with my coach, Butch Harmon, I’ve worked long and hard to make myself a better golfer. I’ve learned a lot–on and off the course–and plan to keep learning. Here’s some of what I’ve learned, and what you might learn from my experience.
More control off the tee: Don’t overswing
When I turned pro, my swing was much looser, and I had a definite control problem. I could lose it both left and right off the tee. The reason I became so adept at hitting escape shots is that I occasionally hit it where no human ever had. Now my swing is much tighter, so I have fewer loose swings and wayward drives. The biggest adjustment I had to make was to take a shorter backswing. Notice in this photo that the club at the top of my backswing is short of parallel, while my left shoulder is under my chin–an indication that I’ve still made a full shoulder turn but limited my wrist cock. I’ve sacrificed a few yards for more accuracy. Believe me, the game is a lot easier when your tee shots consistently find the short grass.
The lesson for you: For more control, shorten your backswing.
Play the percentages
When I do hit an errant tee shot, I’ve learned to take my medicine and get the ball back into play–most of the time. There are times, though–for example, if I’m 2 down with two to play and have to make birdie–that I will still try to hit the heroic shot. That’s also part of what makes the game fun.
Let the arms fall on the downswing
One of the problems I had when I first turned pro was getting in a “stuck” position on the downswing. The club would get behind me, and I would then have to try to square it at impact with my hands. Sometimes I could, other times I couldn’t, and the ball would fly anywhere.
To solve the problem, Butch and I worked hard on my first move down–letting my arms fall as my weight transfers to the left, and keeping the club more in front of my chest instead of behind me. When you see me make that little drop move with an air club, it’s a reminder of that first move down.
The lesson for you: Start the downswing by letting your arms drop as your weight shifts targetward.
How to lag putt: Cutting down on three-jacks
I’ve always been an aggressive putter. During my junior golf and amateur days, I would knock it four or five feet past and drill it coming back. However, the greens on tour are faster and more undulating. Most of the time on tour you have to be “passively aggressive.”
You’re not always going to hit your approaches close, so I had to learn how to control my speed on long putts to avoid those knee-knockers coming back. The key is pace of stroke and pace of ball, controlled by a longer, slower stroke. When I’m rolling it well, my backstroke and forward stroke are almost identical in length. If one is shorter, it will not be my forward stroke; you don’t want to decelerate. I lag putted great at this year’s U.S. Open, but what set that up was growing confidence over the previous year. The National Car Rental at Disney in 1999 is a perfect example. I didn’t strike the ball that well all week but managed a one-shot lead going to the 72nd hole. I hit a very conservative approach about 35 feet away, then rolled the putt within tap-in distance. I’ve learned to love tap-ins.
The lesson for you: Employ a longer, slower stroke on long putts.
Having a ball
Don’t mistake my ability to focus for misery. I’m having a great time on course. I’ve learned to smile more and show just how much fun the game is. When the competition is at its fiercest, as when Hal Sutton and I went head-to-head at this year’s Players Championship, I was really intense, but I was having a ball.
How to handle greenside bunkers
One of the weakest parts of my game when I first came on tour was my bunker play, especially from deep greenside bunkers to short-side pins. I’ve improved a lot since then. At Pebble Beach during the Open, I twice hit it into the huge bunker fronting the 17th green. Both times I saved par–nearly holing out on Sunday.
I position the ball toward my forward foot and concentrate on a spot behind the ball where I want the club to enter the sand. The closer to the ball, the more spin I can impart. The key is to weaken my left-hand grip. This lets me use my right hand aggressively. I can cock the club quicker, get the clubface more open and throw my right hand at the ball. The ball lands softly, with less roll. The lesson for you: Weaken your left-hand grip on short-side bunker shots, then be aggressive with your right hand.
How to save strokes from greenside rough
I’ve always had pretty good imagination around the greens, but in the last four years I’ve been forced by tough conditions on certain courses to use my imagination even more. Anticipating the thick greenside rough at the U.S. Open, I worked hard on not only getting it out but getting it close. The course setup for the Memorial the month before the Open gave me a good opportunity to get a feel for that shot. Here’s how to play it: With a 60-degree wedge, take a tighter-than-normal grip to keep the thick grass from closing the clubface. Set your weight more on your forward foot. Pick the club up steeply on the backswing, then stick it in the ground behind the ball and restrict the follow-through. The ball should come out like a knuckler, with little roll.
The lesson for you: From deep greenside rough to a close pin, grip tight and restrict your follow-through.
Extend down the line
It’s no secret that I had problems controlling the distance of my short irons when I first turned pro. I’ve learned that the key to good short-iron play is distance control with my arms, not my hands. I try to extend my arms down the target line in my follow-through. That keeps the club from releasing, and helps me keep the ball on target and under control.
The controlled-fade tee shot: Bow left wrist at impact
The controlled fade is another reason I’m hitting more fairways. It’s a great option for tight holes–and one of the reasons I play Jack Nicklaus-designed courses, with their left-to-right bias, so well. To play it, set up with the ball an inch or two inside your forward foot and your stance slightly open. Swing the club along your feet and bow your left wrist toward the target at impact, to keep the club from releasing. Complete your follow-through. The bowed wrist will make it appear as if you’ve abbreviated your finish. The key to this shot is strength. You must have strong wrists and forearms or you’ll most likely hit a weak slice. It took me time to build up enough strength to execute this shot.
The lesson for you: Build your strength for control, not just distance.
How to grind it out
I learned very early–first from my dad, then from watching Jack Nicklaus, then from being in the heat of competition myself–that mental toughness can be the winning edge. I was taught to maintain my focus no matter the situation and, most importantly, to never, ever give up. That lesson was never more important than last year at the PGA Championship. I was sailing along in the final round before a couple of loose swings and bad bounces made things interesting. I know it’s a cliche, but the key really is to take it one shot at a time. I concentrated on every shot and never looked ahead. I’m proud of the fact that I was able to grind it out and hold on. That sigh of relief you saw at the end of the PGA was genuine. I was drained mentally and emotionally. I have drawn strength from that experience. As I said, I’m still learning.
The lesson for you: Never, ever give up.
Another reason my short-iron play has improved is better posture. I stand a little taller now, with my chin up. I used to set up too close to the ball and lean over with my head down. Now I’m in a much more athletic position.
Tiger: What I’ve learned off the course
It might sound funny, but shortly after I turned pro in August 1996 I didn’t know how to access my money. That’s right. I had signed some pretty big contracts and cashed a check in my first couple of events, but I didn’t know that you had to activate a credit card to use it.
Some people think I was born into riches, but that’s far from the truth. I had never owned a credit card. Never needed one. However, I learned quickly. I also learned how to manage my money and account for every dime. I am determined not to be like so many other professional athletes who can’t read a balance sheet. I’ve learned that attention to detail in business is as important as it is in major championships.
My education has taken some interesting turns, both on and off the golf course. I’ve learned how easy it is to be misunderstood. Being basically a shy person, I think some players mistook my shyness for aloofness. I’ve since become friends with a lot of guys and good friends with a few, like Mark O’Meara. Not all players play the same schedule, though, and when we do, we’re unlikely to be in the same draw. When my friend Notah (Begay III) came out on tour, he played four or five tournaments and I didn’t even see him because of the draw.
I’ve learned what playing schedule fits me mentally and physically and to take enough breaks to remain fresh. My first year, I scheduled too many tournaments early, then ran out of gas toward the end. I won’t make that mistake again.
I’ve learned that success thrusts you onto the world stage, and you have to always be mindful of your appearance–and just as important, your image. I enjoy dressing nicely and doing my own laundry, including ironing my clothes. I still haven’t quite mastered the perfect crease, though.
I learned from watching other players that you always tip clubhouse attendants. I know to drop a few Benjies on them. I also sign a lot of stuff for them. From what they say, they’re not supposed to ask for autographs, but they do anyway. I don’t mind. Besides, they take pretty good care of us.
I’ve also learned to take better care of myself–the value of a good physical- fitness program and a nutritional diet. Technically, without my body there’s no job. So I take care of my body, work out and try to stay as fit as possible.
I used to be a fast-food junkie. I’ve learned the proper balance that my body needs to sustain a high level of energy. A healthier diet has also increased my resistance to colds. I don’t get sick nearly as much now. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally satisfy my need for a cheeseburger-fries-and-strawberry milkshake fix. Just not that often.
Two other areas–the media and autograph hounds–have required major adjustments. The media is a responsibility. I know that. Dealing with them is a product of playing well. I know that there are members of the media who are wonderful people, objective and fair. There are also people who want to take the opposite side and put a spin on it, and I know who they are. Most of the golf-beat writers I see week to week have gotten to know the real me, and I know most of them by name. It’s been a process of growing in mutual respect and understanding.
I don’t mind signing autographs, especially for kids, but it’s disappointing to see kids used as runners for professional autograph traders. It’s almost impossible to distinguish kids who are legitimate from the others. I talked to Arnold (Palmer) and Jack (Nicklaus) about it. It wasn’t an issue when they first came out. Now it’s a business: Pay kids a few dollars and they go get an autograph. It’s sad.
I guess the most important part of my learning curve involves personal relationships. I’ve learned who I can and cannot trust. It takes time. Obviously, you have to get to know someone a little bit to see where they’re coming from. You find out you can always trust the same core people you’ve always trusted, and you can add a few here and there.
Now I’ve got a wonderful group of people who care about me, and I care about them. No matter how tough you think you are, you’re going to have to rely on someone every now and then. They’ve been there for me, and hopefully I’ve responded in kind.
Thankfully, I’m still learning.