The Big Miss
Continued (page 3 of 4)
And just like that, he did. He used the grip the next two rounds at Dallas, and though he shot 70-69 to finish in a tie for fourth, he never complained about it. It was the fastest Tiger ever accepted any change I ever proposed to him, and the astounding thing is that it was probably the biggest change we ever made. Even though it was a grip that cost him some distance because it slightly restricted his hand action, Tiger never complained about the sacrifice and continued to hold the club more in the palm the entire time I coached him. The whole weird way it happened remains improbable to me and is a good example of how Tiger was simply different. I can't imagine another player adjusting to a grip change so quickly.
A FASCINATION WITH MILITARY TRAINING
Psychologically, Tiger was entering a difficult time in 2007. At the top of the bell curve of a career, expectation is greater than ever, but by definition decline overtakes improvement. Certainly Tiger wasn't going to concede reaching the top of the curve, but even he had to know he was very close, and it was going to take all he had to keep pushing against the forces of time. And it didn't help that the standard he'd established meant criticism -- of his swing, of his putting, of his attitude -- whenever he didn't win. No player in history had ever faced such high expectations. There were a few times when he was taking hits for not winning one of the first three majors of the year, and the weight of it all would show, and he'd say, "Nothing is ever good enough."
For me, the job got harder. There was more urgency and less fun. Tiger was more irritable and impatient. The process of improvement had been his emphasis when we first started our work, but he began to be much more concerned about results, or in his words, "getting the W." He never mentioned Nicklaus' record, but it started to weigh more heavily at every major. And Tiger's actions indicated he believed he had less time to do it than everyone else thought.
In retrospect, 2007 was when Tiger began to lose the joy of playing and began to look at his career as something he wanted to get over with sooner rather than later. And the most obvious sign was his growing obsession with the military.
His fixation really came out when he played a SEALs video game. Tiger would put on headphones, through which an animated commander would give him orders for the next mission to be carried out. The objective was to keep overcoming increasingly difficult tests. Tiger would get totally immersed, sitting on the edge of the couch, as intense and focused as if he were playing in a major championship.
It had gone far beyond video games, into the real world. That its roots were in his connection to his father, Earl, who'd achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Special Forces and served in Vietnam, had been clear for a few years. Right after the 2004 Masters, only a month after we'd begun working together, Tiger went to Fort Bragg, N.C., to do four days of Army special-operations training. With Earl in attendance, Tiger did two tandem parachute jumps, engaged in hand-to-hand combat exercises, went on four-mile runs wearing combat boots, and did drills in a wind tunnel. Tiger loved it, but his physical therapist, Keith Kleven, went a little crazy worrying about the further damage Tiger might be doing to his left knee.
Tiger's military activities began to take the form of two- or three-day sessions at naval and marine outposts involving exercises with Navy SEALs teams, and they would increase dramatically. Less than two weeks after Earl's funeral and three weeks before the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Tiger had gone to installations near San Diego for a three-day session in parachuting. In my long email to Tiger after that tournament, here's what I said:
With the U.S. Open 18 days away, do you think it was a good idea to go on a Navy SEALs mission? You need to get that whole SEALs thing out of your system and stick to playing Navy SEAL on the video games. I can tell by the way you are talking and acting that you still want to become a Navy SEAL. Man, are you crazy? You have history to make in golf and people to influence and help. Focus on your destiny, and that isn't flushing bad guys out of buildings in Iraq. Just play the video games some more. That Navy SEAL stuff is serious business. They use real bullets.
I took a dismissive tone in that email because I really thought the military stuff was a phase that Tiger would soon realize was ridiculous. I was trying to shake him back to his senses regarding this G.I. Joe fantasy. But a year later, I realized I'd underestimated. When we were at his house and he was watching the Military Channel or the BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs) DVD, an exercise or training mission would catch his eye and he'd make a comment like, "That would be cool," or "I'd really like to do that." He was telling me that this SEAL thing was more than fun and games to him. One morning I was in the kitchen when he came back from a long run around Isleworth, and I noticed he was wearing Army boots. Tiger admitted that he'd worn the heavy shoes before on the same route. "I beat my best time," he said.
The military became central to his life, and in 2007 Tiger probably went on half a dozen SEALs trips. When the new season began, one of Tiger's first public acts was to visit a "special warfare" SEALs unit on the Tuesday of Torrey Pines. According to news reports, he told the assembled group at a facility in Coronado, outside San Diego, "If I hadn't been in golf, I would have been here with you guys. When I was younger, I always dreamed of being a Navy SEAL." The first PGA Tour event where he was named host -- the 2007 AT&T National -- took place outside Washington, D.C., over the July 4 weekend and allowed active military personnel into the gates free.
"THE LENGTHS TIGER WENT TO TO MAKE A SEALS CAREER A REAL POSSIBILITY STILL STUN ME."
I was beginning to realize that his sentiment ran deep, and that as incredible as it seemed, Tiger was seriously considering becoming a Navy SEAL. I didn't know how he'd go about it, but when he talked about it, it was clear that he had a plan. After finding out that the Navy SEAL age limit is 28, I asked Tiger about his being too old to join. "It's not a problem," he said. "They're making a special age exception for me."