After a disastrous few weeks that saw Tiger Woods fall to the lowest rank of his career since going pro in 1996, the 39-year-old world former No. 1 announced he would be taking a break from the professional circuit to shore up his skills.
Woods briefly outlined a practice strategy before assuring his fans, “I do, however, expect to be playing again very soon.”
While Woods can practice and dissect the mechanics of his swing all he wants, some suspect the solution to his struggles lie elsewhere — in his mind.
“You have to have technique, but you also have to have a tremendous amount of peace of mind and confidence and not be thinking of your technique when you play the shot,” said Joe Parent, author of “Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game.”
“This is what we call paralysis from analysis. You’re thinking so much about your technique that you lose two important features: Visualization and feel are absent if your mind is filled with thoughts of technique,” he added.
Parent, like Woods, is Buddhist, and he thinks the Eastern religion can help Woods regain his footing, especially when it comes to his short game, where Woods has really seemed to run into trouble. A clip showing Woods overshooting a hole about 25 yards from the edge of the green during the Farmers Insurance Open last week went viral for all the wrong reasons. Later that day, Woods withdrew from the tournament.
“The closer you get to the hole, the more mental the game is,” Parent said. Parent, who has not worked with Woods, but has worked with the likes of Vijay Singh and Cristie Kerr, added the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness” can help players get over their hangups, whether they’re to do with emotional turmoil, an aging body or a return from injury — all things Woods has had to deal with.
“In the Buddhist positioning, thoughts and mind are not exactly the same. Your mind is bigger than your thoughts. What mindfulness means is that your mind is full of perceptions of the present moment,” Parent said. “If you are thinking … then you’re separated from (the present) and therefore you lose the feel and the imagery, the visual and the kinesthetic perceptions.”
Mindfulness can be practiced just like a swing. Michael Lardon, author of “Mastering Golf’s Mental Game: Your Ultimate Guide to Better On-Course Performance and Lower Scores,” developed a technique he calls “Left Brain, Right Brain, No Brain.” The system takes into account rational, left-brain analytics, which in Woods’s case would deal with something like his swing technique, as well as more creative, imagination-based imagery your right brain offers. Finally, the two sides culminate in “No Brain,” which is where the mindfulness truly occurs — it’s when a player lets go during the swing, concentrating on nothing but the present moment.
It’s at that point where Lardon, who has not worked with Woods but has worked with Phil Mickelson as well as Olympians, football players and more, thinks Woods might be struggling.
“He’s probably one of the greatest mental athletes in history and how do you all of a sudden snap a finger and lose the most basic thing?” Lardon asks. “In the world of professional golf, there are many, many players who can shoot unbelievably low numbers. … But who can do it under the gun? It’s in the chest, meaning heart, courage.”
If meditation doesn’t work for someone, Buddhist or not, Lardon says there are a number of other practices — from hypnosis to specialized video games — that can help athletes learn to be mindful. The end purpose is to alleviate what Lardon refers to as the “athlete’s paradox,” which requires athletes to remain relaxed in very intense environments.
With all eyes on Woods not just because of his recent gaffes, but also his past achievements and sordid personal life, Woods arguably faces more challenges than others. But that doesn’t mean his self-imposed break should be read as a signal that the end of his PGA career may be nigh.
“You never want to bet against arguably the greatest golfer of all time,” Lardon said. He added, however, that a comeback won’t be easy. “It’s a little bit like he’s losing that right brain piece.”
Or perhaps one could say he’s losing grasp of his Buddhist roots. Woods even admitted as much in February 2010 while publicly apologizing for cheating with multiple women on his then-wife Elin Nordegren, who split from Woods in August 2010.
“People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years,” he said (via CNN). “I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age.”
Five years later, Woods might still be struggling down that path.
“I think it would be great for him to spend more time doing the actual (Buddhist) sitting practice of mindfulness to uncover whatever anxieties, concerns or lack of confidence that he might be experiencing,” Parent said, before borrowing some language from baseball. “He may not be able to be the flame-throwing pitcher, but he can be the crafty veteran.”