My Own Tiger's Tale

by Matthew E May

Tiger Woods - Time Magazine Cover“Tiger-gate” is the media focus of the week. Looks like another one bites the moral dust. Another checkmark in the “how the mighty fall” column. A whole new meaning to Nike’s tag line. Skootch over, Kobe. All that.

Be that as it may, I have my own Tiger’s tale, and it’s one that has stayed with me for the entire eight years since it happened. In fact, I use the story in many of my speeches. (You can view my presentation on YouTube HERE.)

The year was 2001, eight years ago to the week…

I walked into the small workout room of the country club I belong to in southern California, to find none other than Tiger Woods. Each year in December he hosts the last PGA event of the year: a small invitation-only challenge tourney at the course. Proceeds benefit Tiger’s educational foundation for disadvantaged youths. (The big news this week, of course, is that he will not be in attendance at his own event). On this particular Monday, the Monday of the tournament week, it was just him and me in the gym. The fact that he was the only golfer in there pumping iron told me something. I guess I was watching him more intently than I realized, because he said “You obviously know who I am. Who are you?” I told him I was just a member, but that I had read an interesting Time magazine cover story on him the previous year, the gist of which was about how he took the biggest risk of his career immediately upon turning pro.

In 1997, with barely seven months under his belt as a professional golfer, 20-year old Tiger stunned the golf world. It wasn’t that he had won five PGA Tour tournaments. Or pocketed a $60 million Nike endorsement deal. It wasn’t that he had won the 1997 Masters by twelve strokes. It was his decision to reinvent his swing after achieving all that.

Pundits and peers thought he was crazy. Commentators speculated on his early demise. But Tiger knew his swing wasn’t as consistent, controlled, or efficient as it could be. It took eighteen months of rewiring, practice, and frustration, during which time he was virtually winless. He knew he was getting better, and was quoted as saying, “Winning is not always the barometer of getting better.” Slowly but surely, Tiger’s new swing became a deadly controlled substance. With no loss of power, he could hit any type of shot on demand, better and more accurately than ever. The payoff was a record six straight wins starting in late 1999.

He’s reengineered his swing now three or four times. Every time he does, he remains winless for a time – but then comes roaring back, usually with a string of wins like the one in 1999.

So I asked him: “What really drives you you to keep breaking what isn’t broken?” He said, “The number 18.” I immediately thought: “Aha, that’s the number of majors Jack Nicklaus won. So that’s the goal.” I said as much. Tiger said, “That’s what people think, and I let them. But 18? That’s a perfect golf score.”

That says it all right there. The point is this: The pursuit of perfection is not focused on achieving perfection, it’s focused on chasing it. Approached as a process, it can drive breakthroughs. Approached as goal, it can actually block innovation. Perfection is unachievable…it’ll never happen. Unless you’re Buddha I guess. That’s what throws people, at least in our Western culture. We’ve become impatient with mastery. If you can’t achieve perfection, why bother pursuing it?

Answer: because you have to. Otherwise you’ll always be a follower.

It’s how the best get better.

In 2007, Tiger pocketed a cool $11,260,000.00 for taking first in the inaugural FEDEX Cup. He did it again this year. You don’t mess with that kind of success, right? WRONG. As he accepted his millions for winning the Tour Championship and the FEDEX Cup, and after dazzling the gallery with one immaculate shot after another, he was asked if we can expect him to ever play any better than he is right now. Instant response: “Yes. I think my game is moving in the right direction.”

If only his personal life was following alongside…


Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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