How a teen Tiger Woods foreshadowed his otherworldly Hall of Fame career

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Making predictions about what golf prodigies will achieve rarely works out. But there was something about Tiger Woods.
Teen Tiger Woods

I sensed it after first meeting him and watching him play in October 1990, when he was 14. He had already won five Junior World age group championships and a bunch of other national tournaments. He had just gotten to the semifinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur. But when it came time to write my story for Golf Digest, I stutter-stepped.

“The prodigy has accomplished more at his age than Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Lanny Wadkins did as wunderkinder, and even more than junior stars like Eddie Pearce and Tracy Phillips, who reached their peaks in high school before fading from the arena,” I wrote. “If Woods can maintain the rate of his rise – and “if” must always be emphasized when projecting golfing genius – he could develop into one of the game’s finer players.”

I still wince reading that last sentence; It was way too safe. I gave in to the skepticism that I’d heard from older peers who had been scarred by overpraising prodigies of the past, only to see them disappear. I should have followed my gut and written that Woods “could develop into one of the game’s greatest players.” Which evidence supported, and which the qualifier “could” gave me plenty of room to say.

Of course, even that assertion would have turned out to be an understatement.

Looking back on his teenage years, there was much more than just “something” about Tiger. There were so many things. Here are a few:

Teen Tiger Woods

He had won – all the time – at every level. And he expected to win. It was not the way golfers were conditioned to think, but even at that young age, Woods talked about his mindset in a tone that sounded discerning more than cocksure. He was aware of the game’s vagaries and randomness, and that sometimes the best player will get outplayed. But he calculated that with his advantage in ability. If he addressed the intangibles – like maintaining a stoic positivity, or understanding how to make the right swing adjustments within a round, or staying away from mistakes – he should be able to prevail. Or in his father’s words, “complete the mission.” The saving paradox was that when Woods did lose, he took it well. It was more gathered intelligence for the next time … when he would be better.

He had amazing focus. His mother said that even as a preschooler he would stick with a task – like a puzzle or a coloring book – until he completed it. Tiger took pride in that sense of purpose, saying, “I want to be known as an overachiever.” Losing himself in the task at hand also helped him deflect pressure.

He possessed an eerie poise in competition that was palpable. The relaxation in his face when he stepped up to the ball was serenity personified.

He passed the athletic eye test. He moved beautifully, with a rhythm and grace that produced effortless speed. At Woods’ Masters debut as an amateur in 1995, Gary Player would say, “As soon as I saw Tiger Woods swing today, I thought, Man, this young guy has got ‘it.’ ‘It’ is something indescribable. It’s the way he puts his hands on the club, the way he stands over the ball. It’s agility, it’s speed. ‘It’ is what a great racehorse has.”

Woods seemed to enjoy talking about his weaknesses, or at least the areas he most wanted to improve. He genuinely enjoyed such projects, motivated by the inevitable improvement ahead. For him, that’s where much of the fun was, all the better because he knew it was a process that would never end.

Conversely, he believed he could master every area of the game, another goal that went against conventional wisdom. He was already expanding the boundaries of what was possible for a golfer with this no-limits approach. The year 2000, when he led the PGA Tour in more than 20 statistical categories, was the eventual result.

He loved studying the swings and mannerisms of not just the great players in history, but almost anyone who had success on Tour. He liked figuring out what was special about each one, why an idiosyncrasy worked, and perhaps even borrowing from it. He could do dead-on impressions of Lee Trevino’s open-stanced move through the ball; Johnny Miller’s aggressive footwork; Fred Couples’ loose-shouldered pre-shot mannerisms. He appreciated Davis Love III’s position at the top; the way Greg Norman made his swing more compact; the purity of Brad Faxon’s putting stroke. He thought of his own game as a sort of cherrypicked composite, with a desire to be better than everyone before him.

Tiger woods

Because he had learned to beat bigger and stronger players when he was very small, he got a huge head start in the short game. Rather than considering it as just an equalizer, he saw it as a weapon to assert superiority. When he worked with John Anselmo at Meadowlark Golf Club in Huntington Beach, between ages 10 and 16, Anselmo noted that after their full-swing sessions, Woods would spend most of his practice time working on different shots around the chipping green.

Unlike many other superior ball-strikers, Woods was never resentful that an inferior player might beat him with a better short game. Instead, he flipped the script, determined to out-putt the good putters. It was why he enjoyed contests with then-fellow junior and supreme putter Chris Riley.

For all the aggression that his power tempted, Tiger had a much older player’s aversion to course-management mistakes. His first rule was, don’t beat yourself. Understanding the value of conservative play was a key element of his ability to get a lead and hold onto it.

He had an abnormally fierce desire to win. It was evident that something very deep inside him was at stake when he played in a tournament, which gave each shot the utmost importance. It was a controlled urgency which lifted him to rise to the occasion over and over. It was Tiger’s edge of edges.

Several months after the Golf Digest story, Woods won the first of what would be three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs. As a singular feat, it might prove more unmatchable than any of his other records.

In the final match of each victory, Woods had to come from behind and win on the 18th or 19th hole, further reinforcing that he had an innate ability to handle adversity and big moments. Thereafter, Tiger would shine with brilliance – like the 12-stroke Augusta victory that engendered resignation from many of the game’s best – but not really surprise with his path.

A few years later, Nicklaus would issue perhaps the highest praise when he said of Woods: “Whatever I had, I think this young man has more of it.”

And it was an incredible privilege to see that something so early.

Write A Comment