Tiger back on the prowl

So Tiger Woods is once again officially the best golfer in the world after victory by two shots in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club.  Woods has had a stunning start to the season, winning three PGA titles already, and must be the favourite for The Masters next month.  But is this sudden rejuvenation merely a rich vein of form, or is the American settling in for another long tenure at the top of the rankings?

This is the first time Woods has hit sustained form since his much-publicised shenanigans in late 2009.  He had an average 2012 (by his standards), winning three times, but he was never consistently at the top of his game and hardly featured in the four majors.  He has been there or thereabouts in every tournament this season and it looks like we are seeing a new and improved Tiger, maybe even better than the pre-2009 model.  He seems a lot more focused, more relaxed on and off the course and, ironically, his private life could be the reason.

Last week Woods revealed that he has been dating U.S skier Lindsey Vonn for a couple of months.  Now I don’t claim there to be a direct correlation between his upturn in form and his relationship, but as we all know, golf, more than any other sport, is as much a game of the mind as the body (trust me – I can’t do either).  A happy Tiger and an improved Tiger; co-incidence?  I think not.

Across all walks of life, performance is enhanced by being mentally focused, be that alert, relaxed, determined or fired-up.  I doubt there is any difference in Woods’ actual psychological routine when he hits a golf ball than from last season.  He is always striving to shoot the lowest possible score.  You don’t win 14 majors without extraordinary mental strength.  But it is his approach to his thinking that has altered.  Whereas in the past couple of seasons Woods would be tetchy in his press conferences and get angry on the course if he hit a bad shot, this season his mental approach is more positive – for instance looking forward to the next shot instead of dwelling on his mistake.  A round of golf takes 4+ hours.  You cannot concentrate continually for that length of time so in between shots you have to have the ability to switch off.  This time is crucial because it defines the mind-set for the next shot and possibly inadvertently, the entire round.  So if Woods is naturally happier in his life off the course, his subconscious thoughts will therefore become happier, leading to a more positive mental approach and consequently, improved performance.  You can’t force your mind to think positive thoughts against its will (well you probably could but not for 4 hours) so your natural subconscious will determine your mental attitude when you switch-off in between shots or holes.  Dwelling on negative thoughts will indirectly affect your golf because it lessens the likelihood of hitting a good shot.  Woods has conquered this, not by sports psychology but by good old-fashioned romance.  He seems to have finally laid those ghosts of 2009, which haunted him everywhere, to rest.  That infamous toothy smile has returned and so have the regular victories.

Worryingly for his competitors, Woods’ form does not look like abating any time soon.  That familiar surge up the leaderboard on the Saturday afternoon.  The bright red top on the Sunday afternoon in the final pairing.  The inevitable victory.  It has all returned better than ever.  It was a path well-trodden for the best part of a decade and now it looks set to stay.  For how long?  Who knows.  Rory McIllroy may well have a say if he gets his act together but that’s the problem: IF.  With Tiger you feel as if there is no if.  It just is.  Winning is become a habit again and if (sorry) reports are to believed, he is hungrier than ever for more major titles.  The combination of a hungry and happy Tiger is an ominous one.  It is going to take a special performance from someone to stop him taking victory at Augusta next month in this form.  I know who my money is on.

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