In 1997, Earl Woods was there to greet his prodigal son when he finally fulfilled his dream to win the Augusta Masters. 22 years later and 14 years since his last, after much controversy in his personal life, a long hiatus from professional golf and four back operations when many thought he was past his best, he was there to win his 5th Masters - this time to be greeted by his son Charlie, daughter Sam and mother, Kultida. How the tide has turned.
After some good recent performances, the bookies odds had shortened on Woods. With a new chiseled look, he had shown himself to be getting back in shape to compete at the top level again but nobody foresaw what would happen at the Masters in 2019!
Francesco Molinari led on -13 heading into the last day of play ahead of Tony Finau on -11. There was a stacked field behind them however that included Tiger Woods among others. Woods picked up a few shots along the front 9 holes in the final round bringing him closer to the overnight leaders. However, Finau lost all sense of his rythm, dropping shots while overnight leader Molinari became tentative and followed with a series of pars.
So what happened Molinari?
In the words of Tiger Woods, "it all flipped on 12, with Molinari making a mistake", going straight into the water.
It may be that he struggled to keep his composure under the mental strain of competition. Research has shown that when a golfer is nervous, they become more error prone doing exactly what they are specifically trying to avoid. Molinari most likely scanned the terrain and consciously thought – “keep it away from the water”.
When a golfer addresses a ball, they would often aim in a certain direction while being conscious not to miss either left or right, short or long due to relevant hazards - water, bunker or otherwise. In a non-pressurised situation, a skilled golfer would invariably succeed in executing what they wanted to do with the ball.
However, in a competitive game with high levels of pressure, the daunting task of avoiding the water can become too great (See article on dealing with pressure). Too often, the net result is that the golfer plays the ball to exactly where he was trying not to hit it. Since this is the thing he set out to not do, we call it the “ironic error”.
So what is happening?
When the brain seeks to make the body perform in a specific manner, it relies on two mental processes – an operating process and a monitoring process.
The operating process is responsible for identifying all the steps that will allow us to achieve a desired outcome. If you are going to hit a drive down the fairway, this might include taking a practice swing, picking out your exact target of where you want to hit it, setting your feet in desired spot in relation to ball, and executing the golf shot as desired. Simple, right?
Simultaneously, a monitoring process is subconsciously at work. This works like a radar sweeping for information on what could go wrong. In relation to Molinari, that might include looking at the flag while thinking about avoiding the water. Once the monitoring process has identified these dangers, it informs the operating process to try harder to find key information that will help the athlete execute its desired outcome; ie chip onto green. Both processes work under one control system and operate together as part of a feedback loop.
The system normally works reasonably well and provides us with the effective mental control to do what we intend. It would mean that Molinari, playing under zero pressure will generally succeed in putting the ball accurately on the green beside the flag. However, in this instance the pressure was vast and the tension was such that Molinari struggled to execute a simple enough shot when under pressure.
Tiger Woods handling pressure
There was one man that could handle the pressure better than all the rest. Tiger Woods was on a roll and the crowd were buzzing in anticipation like the good old days. He knew how to react and maintain his composure. Afterwards in the Butler Cabin, Woods was asked what it was like out there and how he handled the cauldron of an atmosphere that developed when there was a lot of movement on the leader-board with a few holes to play.
"It all flipped on 12, Molinari made a mistake..........I was patient, kept good control of my emotions, my shots, my shot placement........There was an amazing buzz.......... meanwhile staying present and focused on what I am trying to do out there.............I just managed to plot my way around the golf course"
On the par 5 hole 15, Woods was on the green in 2 shots, leaving an easy up and down for Birdie to take the lead for the first time sending the crowd into overdrive. The crowd erupted again on the par 3 16th hole. Woods hit an immaculate shot, spinning the ball into a 2 foot putt for birdie to take a 2 shot lead at -14. The noise that reverberated around the ground left some of the others awe-struck. Xander Schauffele, a contender on -12 stepped off a drive to regain his composure before hitting his shot, such was the level of the noise.
Woods was on a roll when all around him were failing to contend with the cauldron of an atmosphere that had developed on the final holes. Woods had been here before. He was equipped to deal with it all - the emotion, the thoughts, the fear, the required course management skills.
With a two shot lead coming down the last, his decision making was outstanding. He said, he just had to "try to make 5 coming down 18". He held his nerve on the tee with a good drive. He kept his second shot short and left to avoid the deep bunkers on the front right of the 18th hole. He chipped on safely and had an easy 2 putts to regain the crown he last won in 2005.
As the crowd erupted, he celebrated with joy with the masses reacting to every fist pump. He showed an emotion that we rarely got to see in his earlier years, when perhaps he took his success all for granted. Given what he has endured, maybe he values the moment all the more. He greeted his loved ones and entourage with a sense of joy and level of humanity we have rarely seen from him before in public.
He name checked his kids and mother when interviewed in the winners enclosure - another first for Tiger Woods! It is probably one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time and certainly one that will be talked about in golfing circles for a very long time.
Tiger Woods, the champion is back!
Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport under the Professional Quality Assurance Programme (PQAP).
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