In addition to introducing non-golfers to the term ‘hit-and-giggle’, Tiger Woods also gave a lesson last week on the demands of competitive golf at the highest level.
The perception has softened quite a bit over the years, but in some quarters it’s still, “It’s supposed to be fun, go play golf for four days and get a lot of money doing it.”
As it is with all other major league sports (and artistic entertainment, for that matter), we don’t see all the hours and effort it takes to be at that high level when the bell rings.
Why did Dustin Johnson make 91.4% of his 5-foot putts last season? Why did Justin Thomas convert 85.7% of his ups and downs from greenside bunkers?
It’s no coincidence.
Hours and hours of practice, day after day after day, is what it takes to know that the 5-foot putt will fall under pressure, or the tee shot will split the fairway on the 72nd hole.
It takes a certain amount of physical ability and resilience to do that. No, not all professional golfers look like “athletes” in that sense, but as baseball—another game where hand-eye genius is honed through endless repetition—the physical demands are narrow enough to accommodate different body types.
But the requirements are necessary for success. Your buddy, the three handicap hotshot, might get out of his Buick on Saturday morning and deliver a “hit-and-giggle” 75 with the guys, but it’s as far as he goes as a once or twice-week golfer.
That’s what Tiger Woods was referring to when discussing his future – or lack thereof – in competitive golf. Will he reach a point where he can run 18 holes without enough discomfort to wish he hadn’t? Let’s say he will. Do it again tomorrow, and then two more days? Again, let’s go positive and assume yes.
But will he be able to spend the hours, days, and weeks of preparation it takes to visit a leaderboard in PGA Tour play?
By discussing that, he introduced (to some) or reintroduced (to others) the legend of Ben Hogan, who some 70 years ago recovered enough from his own horrific car accident to become the world’s best golfer – albeit on a very limited basis due to badly damaged legs.
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“Mr. Hogan,” as Tiger called him this week, proving his enduring appreciation, won six of his nine majors after his accident in 1949. So did all three he competed in 1953—his legs could handle the PGA— championship, which was match play until 1958, and to win, he had to play six consecutive days (not counting the pre-tournament practice rounds).
Tiger and Sam Snead are on par with 82 all-time wins on the PGA Tour. Hogan finished with 64, and if he wasn’t forced into spot duty at 36, he might have approached 100 wins and at least a few more majors (his eventual yips didn’t help either).
Hogan wet his legs, smeared his legs, taped his legs and did what he had to do: swing that flawless swing, over and over, and win at the highest level.
Hogan was famous for his game, and his swing became such a mechanical certainty that he may have been the only golfer in history who could have done what he did.
could have been.
Known for many things that contributed to his genius for many years, Tiger has also been a master craftsman, fine-tuning all aspects of his game to where, at best, there was no flaw. Hogan and Snead couldn’t putt. Arnie couldn’t do that either as he approached forty. Jack was a pedestrian with the wedge. Phil often can’t find a fairway at crucial moments.
Tiger’s driver and putter are not what they were in its prime, but as the 2019 Masters showed they are good enough in any given week. Everything between those two clubs still seemed to be of the highest level until 2019.
He cleverly sets no hard goals or timetables and cleverly sets a low bar for his future in competitive golf. He knows what it takes and that he may not get there.
Inside, however, he knows that there is at least one precedent and perhaps a chance, as he put it, to climb another Everest.
But when you look back at the 2019 Masters and remember his emotional reaction, as well as the videos of him stumbling a few days later, you wonder if that was it, his last Everest, and maybe he knew. He then gave in to the physical toll it took to perform that week. And that was before the spinal fusion, that was before the mutilated leg.
He’d never admitted such a thing before, but then again, he’d never been this old and worn out.
Oh my gosh, almost forgot. Before we go, let’s not overlook a crucial aspect of Tiger’s hopes of attaining part-time or occasional status as a professional golfer.
He recovered quite a few endorsement deals during his comeback from physical and personal tribulations. Those deals should be largely dependent on his competition and not just hitting and giggling with his Jupiter gang at Medalist.
When personal needs are combined with business needs, great things can happen. At least he’s talking about a possible comeback. That is the important first step.
— Reach Ken Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org