Dr. Joe Parent discusses Tiger's mental game

Dr. Joe Parent discusses Tiger’s mental game

Among Tiger Woods's low points on the course in 2010: a tie for 78th place at Firestone.
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI

For all his monster power and clutch putting, Tiger has called his mind “my main asset.” We asked mental-game guru and frequent Golf Magazine contributor Dr. Joe Parent to weigh in on what Tiger has to do between the ears to again dominate between the ropes.

Tiger went winless for the first time in his professional career in 2010. From a mental-game perspective, how do off-course distractions such as divorce hurt a Tour player’s on-course performance?

On the practical level, off-course distractions — especially divorces involving children — create extra demands on time and energy, as well as being emotionally draining. That means a major disruption in the routine a player relies on to properly prepare for a tournament, especially less time to practice. Tiger was clear that he had chosen to spend more time with his kids, even if that meant less time for practice. And it showed in the lack of sharpness in his game.

But Tiger was always so good at compartmentalizing his life and blocking out distractions. Why couldn’t he do that last year?

On the inner level, when your mind is in turmoil in your home life situation, it carries over in all you do. So it’s harder to stay in the present and settle your mind on the golf course. At his best, Tiger was intensely focused and fully present for almost every shot. Last year, it seemed, not so much.

What moments stand out in your mind as Tiger’s low points from 2010?

Most people would pick the awful scores at the WGC Tournament at Firestone, a course he has absolutely owned over the years. But keep in mind that he had a new coach and was making a swing change at the time, and we all know how hard it is to play when you’re “between swings.” He probably accepted those rounds as part of the process. No, the lowest points were during the first three months of the year, leading up to his return at the Masters — the embarrassing revelations, the dramatic drop in popularity, and a pervasive loss of respect. Most everyone found communications from him and his team frustratingly staged and defensive. A very low point was the missed opportunity after the Masters to not talk about himself and his play, but instead to be gracious and statesmanlike in his post-round interview by congratulating Phil Mickelson and simply expressing heartfelt appreciation for golf and how good it was to be back in the game.

Last year, Tiger was just another good Tour player. What does he have to do to reclaim his place as the world’s dominant golfer?

The turmoil Tiger went through — an intensely private person having his most intimate details displayed as a 24/7 worldwide media circus — is beyond imagination. That he could play at all, let alone at the level he did, was amazing. Jack Nicklaus said that the most important aspect of his preparation for a major championship is peace of mind. Tiger has said, “My mind is my main asset,” so he needs to devote as much time as he can to meditation and contemplation, and therapy if necessary, to reclaim his peace of mind. Early in the year, when asked how well I thought Tiger would do upon his return to the game, I said that putting and touch around the greens would be affected most by his mental turmoil. You can recover from a wayward drive, and you can recover from a poor approach. But you can’t recover from a missed four-foot putt.

Is it possible that the magic is just gone? That he’s all out of fairy dust? I’m thinking of his 3-wood approach shot on Saturday at the U.S. Open, setting up eagle putt. But he missed that putt and faded on Sunday.

At his best, everyone expected Tiger to pull off the miracle shot, to hit the magical chip that showed his logo for a while before dropping, or to sink the crucial putt to win. That didn’t happen last year. He needs to rededicate himself to being the best in the world at recovery shots and putts inside 10 feet. If he can do that, he’ll dominate again.

OK, we’re putting you on the spot. If you had to bet your house, your car and your dog, does Tiger break Jack’s record of 18 professional major wins?

I’ve dusted off my crystal ball, and here’s what I see. Tiger will win more majors. But at a slower pace — he’s getting older, injuries may be a factor, and there are a lot of talented young stars gunning for him. So he’ll win one major every two years or so for the next eight seasons, including one more U.S. Open. That will give him 18 professional majors, tying Jack. Then comes the Open at Pebble Beach in 2019. Tiger will be in the scorer’s tent with the lead, being congratulated on breaking Jack’s record of major victories as well as winning a record fifth Open. But wait! Someone named Watson — Bubba, is that you? — holes out on 17 for birdie to take the tournament away from Tiger. And there, Tiger’s total will remain, tied with Jack as the greatest professional golfer in history!

Dr. Joe Parent is a PGA TOUR and LPGA instructor, who has helped both Vijay Singh and Cristie Kerr reach the #1 World Ranking. He teaches at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa Resort in California. For more information on Dr. Joe’s lessons, books, CD’s and DVD’s, visit ZenGolf.com.