The shaping of a master's mind
'Tiger was a very creative and gifted child. A sponge, in terms of absorbing and integrating key components'
Sunday 30 July 2000
Gerard Wright in Denver talks to a man who influenced the early Tiger Woods on his way to world domination
The Comet named Tiger Woods was always up there in the golfing stratosphere, doing what he alone does. It just took a while for that to be recognised and understood.
In 1993, he was playing for the US junior title at the Waverley Country Club in Portland, Oregon. The final was played under matchplay conditions. Coming to the 17th, he was two shots down. Before he teed off, Woods, then 17, conferred with his caddie. What was said will remain sealed by the requirements of doctor-patient relationships, because Woods' caddie, a commanding officer in the US Navy, was also his sports psychologist, Dr Jay Brunza.
For Woods, it would be one of the first real tests he had faced of his nerve and his caddie's teachings of the previous four years. But what followed was remarkable, in any other sporting or competitive context except the one that Woods has fashioned as his legacy to the game. The 17th at Waverley, a par-five for members and a par four under tournament conditions, bends right as it passes a stand of trees. Most players aim left of the trees, for safety's sake. Woods cut off the corner, and left himself with a nine-iron aimed at a two-level green, the hole tucked away on the furthest edge of a small plateau. It landed three metres from the pin for a birdie putt, which he duly made. His opponent parred the hole.
Waverley's 18th is a long par five, with a bunker guarding its lower, right-hand side. The pin was placed on the very edge of the green, just in front of the sand trap. Woods' second shot found the tee-side of the bunker. His third, improbably, landed two to three metres from the pin. Birdie-par. Scores tied. First play-off hole. Woods' opponent's equilibrium was shattered. He bogeyed the hole.
The young Tiger had already left the launch pad. In the years to follow, there were three consecutive US Amateur titles, followed by all four professional major titles, culminating in last week's massive victory at The Open. But already, the pattern had been set.
The Australian sports psychologist Dr Noel Blundell, who worked with Sandy Lyle in the years after his Masters victory, and now consults with the Australian pro Robert Allenby, has watched Woods closely sincethe start of his career and can describe that pattern.
"He's an outstanding competitor, he concentrates very well under pressure, he produces very well under pressure," Blundell says. "That produces a veneer that has an impact on his opponents."
Those opponents, who know that most players will crack given the pressure, come to believe that Woods will not, and that the only way to win is to produce something out of the ordinary - out of their ordinary. "That will take them out of their game, because they feel they have to do something special," Blundell says. And that is what Tiger Woods does. Just ask David Duval.
Before St Andrews or Waverley Country Club and all the victories in between, there was a 13-year-old boy, a prodigy but still just a kid, playing golf with his father Earl, a friend of his father from the services, and a friend of that friend.
That fourth member of the party was Dr Brunza, a psychologist, whose work with cadets at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but more particularly withchildren, in paediatric and gynaecological oncology, had provided him with rare experience in dealing with and guiding young minds though critical situations. He showed them how to put their minds somewhere else, to endure what their bodies were going through.
"You think of a cancer patient," Brunza explains, "a child with leukaemia, a child having to go through radiation treatment, nuclear medicine. The child has to lie still. You teach them imagery, visualising, to deal with that discomfort. When you talk a youngster through a painful spinal tap and the child is just focused, far away, absorbed in creating a story, that's as creative and satisfying as his [Woods'] winning the US Amateur."
Now 57, and retired from the Navy, although not from sports psychology, Brunza is a single-figure golfer. Six months after his first game with Earl Woods and his 13-year-old son at the Naval course in Long Beach, near Los Angeles - "he shot equal par... you can recognise a great golf swing" - their association began.
Brunza was a commander at a chemical dependency unit at the Navy base in San Diego, and was soon promoted to captain. The shaping of Tiger's mind and his game was a weekend pursuit.
Essentially, the process that followed was to teach him to deal with critical situations by emotionally detaching himself from them, while at the same time being completely immersed mentally in the challenge of the moment. With the inhibition of the fear of the moment removed, Woods could respond to the best of his burgeoning physical ability.
"He was a very dedicated young man," Brunza recalls. "Very bright, very intuitive. A sponge, in terms of absorbing, learning and integrating key components. A very creative and gifted child." But at the same time, Brunza says, a child driven from within, rather than without. Much is made of Earl Woods' meticulous planning of his son's early life, and of the competitiveness and apparent tranquility that his mother, Kultida, has bestowed on him. But perhaps greater than that was that the help and the genes came with no competitive obligations.
"I used to be asked when he was 15, 'Is he going to burn out?'" Brunza says. "My answer was that this was unlikely because he's doing it for his intrinsic joy and passion. He's not doing it for anyone else's expectations. If he'd walked in to his parents after he won his second US Amateur and said, 'I'm quitting. I want to take up stamp collecting'. They would say, 'I love you son. How soon can we go to the post office?'" But that was never going to happen.
Instead, at the age of 24, Tiger Woods has long since embarked on a single-minded, almost grim pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major title victories. For the time being it would appear that his will be a solo journey, since few of his contemporaries have shown the combination of ability, stamina and self-belief to keep pace with him.
Brunza is not sure that it is his opponents' fear that gives Woods such a pronounced advantage. "He's tossing the challenge out to them: 'Here's the standard I'm setting. Let's go mano a mano,' as they say. "That's not always easy to keep up with. When you're Michelangelo or Da Vinci, that's a lot of talent."
Though talent alone will never do it. Blundell watched a video of Woods at a tournament in Phoenix. It was the third day, Saturday, at the tournament's raucous 13th hole, the Eagle's Nest. It is a par three set in a natural amphitheatre, the tee surrounded on two sides by a steep grassy slope, crammed with drunken college kids.
On that day, in January 1998, Woods hit a hole in one. The crowd exploded and Woods responded in kind, which itself is about as visceral a reaction as you'll see in golf. Blundell kept watching the tape and noticed something. Woods' partner tapped his putt in and was walking off the green. On the edge of the screen was Tiger. His face was calm, like a lake where a sudden, fierce squall had passed across, and then vanished, leaving a mirror-smooth surface.
"Most players will hold the emotion in, go to the next shot and still be churning inside," Blundell says. "That affects their concentration and rhythm and timing of the shot. They won't be able to focus clearly, and get the image of the next shot they're going to play.
"You'll see him [Tiger] pump his fist and get outwardly excited, releasing the emotion. But then he calms himself down and gets ready for the next shot."
He even emotes better than anybody else.
When Tiger first emerged as a gifted young amateur, Earl Woods, a former US Army colonel, was not backward in coming forward about his son's talents. Among the less modest claims from this golfing equivalent of a rabid tennis dad was the suggestion that Tiger's arrival was as significant as the coming of the Messiah. Now 68 and separated from Tiger's mother, Kultida, whom he met in Thailand during the Vietnam War, he has not mellowed despite suffering from heart trouble. Woods Snr doted on Tiger throughout his childhood, identifying him as a golf prodigy at the age of three. But the self-belief and discipline which Tiger has harnessed to his innate ability clearly stems from an intensive upbringing which included a spell of study at Stanford. Earl is now less of an influence on his son, partly because ill-health prevents him from travelling. But he still needs little encouragement to blow Tiger's trumpet and after last weekend's triumph expanded on Al Jolson's immortal words: "You've only seen the tip of the iceberg. It's going to get a lot better. Enjoy what he will do because it's something we've never seen in the history of golf. People are seeing thebest golfer in the historyof the game."
The eldest son of the 1948 Masters winner Claude Harmon seemed destined for the glittering prizes when he joined the US tour in 1969. But Butch Harmon's playing career was a disappointment and he was in relative obscurity as a club pro in Houston when asked to remodel Greg Norman's swing. After sparking a renaissance in the Australian's performances, the highlight being a memorable victory in the 1993 Open, Harmon was commended to Earl Woods as the man to guide his son's game. "We hit it off straight away - I liked what he had to say and admired his appetite for hard work," said Harmon about his first meeting with Tiger, then 17. Harmon's philosophy is to encourage a golfer's natural swing rather than impose his own regime. An upbeat man, he also believes in a positive but relaxed approach to his charges. Some people are irritated by the high profile he adopts in Tiger's company, particularly before and immediately after a round, but Harmon, 56, feels his presence is necessary to dispel pre-match nerves and signal approval of his protÃ©gÃ©'s efforts. Yet Harmon, now based in Las Vegas, insists Tiger "does a lot on his own. Much of his practice is in seclusion."
Steve Williams, a 36-year-old New Zealander, represents another Norman connection in Team Tiger, having previously caddied for the Shark. He has carried the world No 1's bag for almost two years despite being a surprise choice when he originally took over from his moustachioed predecessor Fluff Cowan. Fluff's abrupt exit stemmed from Woods' displeasure at his caddie giving an interview about his master, so the unobtrusive Williams makes a studied point of not playing to the gallery. Though few fans would recognise him in a crowd, it is estimated he will earn more than £1m this year as his percentage of Tiger's prize money for less than 25 weeks' work. All that time off and cash to spend means that he is a regular visitor to the ski slopes of Oregon in addition to being his country's second highest-paid sports personality after Jonah Lomu. He owes his privileged position to Harmon, saying: "Butch had a hunch we'd get on. I always have an answer for Tiger. I think ahead as if I'm playing the course, not him. It's the most demanding caddieing job in the world but I love it." Woods is especially complimentary: "Steve is so positive, he keeps me upbeat. We have a good time together."
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