Who can touch Tiger Woods?

Wednesday December 3rd, 2008
Woods has won 15 of the 26 World Golf Championships, including three Match Plays.
Robert Beck/SI

If Tiger Woods's victory on Sunday at the Accenture Match Play Championship seemed preordained, that's because it was a quarter century in the making. Ruminating on his unparalleled ability to come through in the clutch, Woods traced this particular strand of his genius to putting competitions he enjoyed as a kid versus his father, Earl. "Ever since I can remember, my dad was always a better putter than I was," Woods said at the Gallery at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz. "I always wanted to kick his butt. I had to bear down. I've always loved competing, ever since very early in my life against my dad."

These battles royal were only some of the many little successes that Woods used to construct, brick by brick, the most formidable psyche in sports. That mental toughness was the key to his dominating performance at the Match Play, during which he broke hearts and records in equal numbers. Having trumpeted even before the season began his intention to chase the Grand Slam, Woods now has two overpowering victories in two starts on the PGA Tour, and the drumbeat is growing louder that 2008 may eclipse his 2000, which is widely regarded as the greatest season in golf history. But for Woods the touchstone remains 1987. "I've had one perfect season," he said last week, "when I was 11. I won 36 tournaments that year."

Woods has known nothing but success for so long that he simply

can no longer conceive of failing. For all his otherworldly physical gifts, it is this unbendable belief in self that truly separates him from his competition, and the distinction was striking during the Match Play's five-day parade of frailties. Sergio Garcia, who long ago was a presumptive challenger to Woods, ditched his three-iron in favor of two putters during the first round, using both the belly and the standard-length wands with little success in an ugly loss to Boo Weekley. Ernie Els's career has become increasingly defined by heartbreak inflicted by Woods, the latest disappointment having come when Easy coughed up a four-stroke advantage during the final round in Dubai last month. Els still seems shaken; he had a disconcerting faraway look in his eyes during his 6-and-5 drubbing by Jonathan Byrd in the first round.

Even those who advanced through the brackets carried plenty of scar tissue. Henrik Stenson, the winner of the consolation match, was in such an eviscerating slump in 2001 that at the European Open he needed three tee shots on his first hole before he could put one in play, and he eventually walked off the course midway through his round. The man Stenson relegated to fourth place, Justin Leonard, is less than a year removed from the worst funk of his career; he started '07 with six straight missed cuts while failing to break 70 in 19 consecutive rounds. Leonard's renaissance began when he reunited with his boyhood instructor, Randy Smith, and returned to a more natural, freewheeling style of play. What compelled Leonard to reinvent himself at 35? "Justin hates embarrassment more than any player I've ever been around," says Smith. "Playing the way he was playing was embarrassing to him."

Leonard is but one member of a large, fretting fraternity. You'd never know it watching the indomitable Woods strut around like a toreador, but pro golfers operate in a state of near-constant anxiety. Stewart Cink, whom Woods vanquished by a record score of 8 and 7 in Sunday's final, says, powerfully, "Shame is a part of golf." After being afflicted by the yips in 2002, Cink eschewed the platitudes of sports psychology for a deeper understanding of himself through psychotherapy. "The other players don't talk about these feelings because they are afraid of appearing vulnerable," he says. "Last time I checked, I'm still a human being."

He's not so sure about Woods. After the anticlimactic final, during which Tiger birdied eight of the final 13 holes, Cink said, "We ought to slice him open and see what's inside. Maybe nuts and bolts."

Woods's mastery of the metaphysical can be traced to the yin and yang of his upbringing as he absorbed the Zen teachings of his Buddhist mother, Tida, and the tough love of his father, a former Green Beret, though his parents often traded roles, with Tida imploring her son to "take the heart" of an opponent and Earl instilling confidence by whispering sweet nothings in his son's ear. One of the key concepts Cink works on with his analyst, Preston Waddington, is what they call self-regulation. "It's all about controlling your emotions," says Waddington, "not letting yourself feel devalued or incompetent because of a golf shot. Not tying your self-worth to an artificial goal like winning a tournament." Waddington has instructed Cink — and his other clients, including Tim Clark, Ben Crane, Jason Gore and Frank Lickliter — to study Woods's on-course demeanor, because Tiger is a model of not letting one shot affect the next. After Sunday's final Cink offered these observations: "He has such a strong sense of belief in himself that he's simply never out of it. He's always in control. He gets mad; that's not what I'm referring to. He never loses his composure. He always stays very poised."

Woods's equanimity was tested last week from his opening swing. Playing in his first tournament in three weeks, he began Wednesday's first-round matchup versus J.B. Holmes with a wild push that went miles out-of-bounds. Woods went on to lose three of the first five holes to Holmes, the big-bopping 25-year-old who has been flying high ever since taking down Phil Mickelson in a playoff in Phoenix three weeks ago. After making a mess of the 13th hole, Woods was still 3 down, but he refused to give in. Over the next four holes he went birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle, making 90 feet worth of putts and uncorking a couple of vintage fist pumps. After losing 1 up, Holmes appeared to have post-traumatic stress syndrome, mumbling, "There's not much you can do when he played five or six under in the last four or five holes. What do you do?"

Woods's comeback sent a charge through the entire tournament and was a prelude to another equally electric match, his thriller with Aaron Baddeley in Friday's third round. After losing a couple of early holes, Badds tore off seven birdies in nine holes to go 1 up with three to play. He could have closed out Woods with a curling 10-footer on the 18th hole, or with a more manageable 12-footer on the first hole of sudden death, but Baddeley missed both. You can't give Woods new life like that, and on the 20th hole he made his 12th birdie, canning a decisive 15-footer that was never anything but good. Explaining his uncanny ability to convert those types of opportunities, Woods fell back on a lifetime of making important putts. "I've been in that situation ever since my junior golf days," he said. "You take those memories and file them away." Even the occasional key putt that hasn't gone in seems to have steeled Woods. "I've missed my share," he said. "Just like [Michael Jordan] taking the last shot. He's missed his share. [But] you want to have the opportunity. That's why you practice, that's why you grind, that's why you put yourself there. You enjoy that situation."

Woods followed his epic tussle against Baddeley with a pair of routine victories over K.J. Choi and Stenson. On the other side of the draw, Cink and Leonard were on a collision course as each mowed down a series of world-class players. Leonard dispatched, in order, Geoff Ogilvy, Lee Westwood, Stuart Appleby and Vijay Singh. Cink took out three straight Ryder Cup stalwarts — Miguel Angel Jimenez, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie — and then the reigning U.S. Open champ, Angel Cabrera. Cink was particularly deadly during Saturday's 36-hole trudge, making eight birdies in the quarterfinals against Cabrera and then blitzing Leonard in the afternoon semis with a 29 on the front side to take a 4-up lead.

In match play Woods is merciless; when he's 5 up, all he's thinking about is getting to 6 up. Cink reacted to his big lead over Leonard by taking his foot off the gas. "It's embarrassing to say as a professional athlete, but I was almost waiting for something bad to happen," Cink said of his cautious back nine. Eventually he closed out Leonard 4 and 2, setting up Sunday's final.

There wasn't much doubt about the outcome after Woods birdied four of the first seven holes to go 3 up. In his first five matches Cink had relentlessly attacked the Gallery and piled up birdies, but against Woods he seemed somehow constrained. "He forces you into trying to be too perfect because you don't think he's ever going to give you anything," Cink said afterward. "It's not a good way to play golf when you think you can't afford to make mistakes. You try to be too careful, and that's how I played."

For Woods, a third Match Play victory is a nice little achievement and further confirmation that all is right with his game heading into the run-up to Augusta. There was no other deeper meaning for this battle-tested champion. For Cink, the week was full of revelations despite the "demoralizing" (his word) ending. "I have learned to trust myself more," he said. "Coming down to the end of these matches I have hit so many good shots, I have learned I can rely on myself." That's a lesson Woods learned long, long ago.

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