The difficulty of winning and winning

2013-04-06 00:00

NEXT week at the Masters, Tiger Woods embarks on the most difficult task of his golfing career, which is to resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Major titles. His mid-term hiatus, which lasted for nearly five years, is over. His game and his life are both back in a state of readiness.

This year he has won three times on the American PGA tour, which is more than anyone else. His putting, which was probably a clearer indication of the troubles that beset him for the past few years, is back to near his best. It is at least good enough for him to take advantage of his peerless ball striking and certainly good enough to win on a course with which he his clearly familiar.

It is a curious feature of Woods’s success that so many of his victories have come on a relative handful of courses. He has been criticised for avoiding courses that do not suit his eye. This is nothing new in professional golf. Top professionals have been doing it for years, but no one else has done it as effectively as Woods, who has won something like 40% of his professional victories on just seven courses. One of these courses is Augusta National.

Woods is the clear favourite to win the 2013 Masters. He is fit again and all departments of his game are in good shape, although his driving remains a slight problem. His personal life is settled enough for him to contemplate winning another Major title and he obviously has the desire, but will he do so this week?

It may be more difficult than some people think. Athletes operate at their best when they are doing so unconsciously. The moment that thoughts, positive or negative, obtrude is often the time of danger for athletes.The more successful they become, the more difficult it is to keep their minds out of what they are doing. It is often manifest in the relentless pursuit of perfection that drives some sportspeople and particularly golfers.

One of the most extreme examples of an athlete who thinks too much is Padraig Harrington, who freely admits that he changes his swing every day in his drive to hit the ball perfectly. As a consequence, his mind has become a dark place that has inhibited his ability to reproduce the kind of golf that saw him win three Majors within 15 months.

The problem facing Woods is his driven ambition to beat the Nicklaus record.

Records are usually the by-product of an athlete operating at the peak of his powers.

I am sure that Hashim Amla did not set out to break any records when he went out to bat at The Oval in last year’s first Test match against England. His first concern would have been to protect his wicket and steer his team to safety. Later in his innings, he would have been mindful that the more runs he made the more likely it was that the Proteas might find themselves in a position where the match could be won. It would have been only very late in his innings that the thought of records would have entered his mind. It says much for his powers of concentration that he did not allow these thoughts to detract from the primary mission, which was to beat the opposition.

For Woods, however, it will be difficult but not impossible to remove from his consciousness all thoughts of driving himself closer to the Nicklaus number. This, after all, is the overriding desire of his golfing career, if not his life — to be acknowledged as the greatest golfer of all bar none. Nobody will have won as much as he has without the ability to focus on the challenges of each particular shot, but can he do it again under the pressures created by the toxic mix of his own ambition and recently revealed frailties?

He will know how important it is for him to start reeling in Nicklaus’s record with a win this weekend. This is his course and for eight years, the Masters was his tournament to lose. He will know that circumstances this year may never be more favourable for him. His greatest rival, Rory McIlroy, is not playing well and neither are any of Augusta’s past champions with the possible exception of Phil Mickelson, whose game has become increasingly erratic.

Woods is in peak physical condition, but this time next year he will be a year older, whereas his younger rivals will be a year more experienced and still approaching the summits of physical prowess. The Woods body has been prone to suffering more than most golfers the stresses and strains of an uncompromising swing. The most conscious negative thought he needs to avoid this Masters is that time is beginning to run out for him.

Which is why a win this weekend is so important for him. It will give him the confidence to play in a frame of mind that is less aware of the fact that he has been stuck on 14 Major wins for the best part of five years.

The awful thought that 14 might be all he ever gets will no longer be part of the Woods psyche. That number will be behind him, and like the marathon runner lying in second place, he will receive new energy from the perceptible closing of the distance between him and the leader of the pack.

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