Process, Outcome, and Tiger Woods

It’s a truism that we play our best golf when we stay in the moment, don’t get ahead of ourselves, and focus on the process of play rather than the outcome. If we stay focused on the shot at hand rather than our score we give ourselves the best chance for a good round.

When I think back over my golf career and the rounds I remember and enjoyed the most, I don’t recall “that round when I shot even par.” I recall “that round when my swing felt so good” or “that round when the 18th fairway was so beautiful in the twilight.” I remember the process of the rounds, not the outcome.

There’s no surer way to destroy a good round than to start thinking about the score. If anyone out there hasn’t blown a great score by realizing you could shoot your personal best by just playing halfway decent over the last three holes, there’s a spot waiting for you in the hall of fame.

It’s my guess that focusing on process over outcome wasn’t a big problem for most of Tiger Woods’ career. When the outcome is so consistently good there’s little temptation to be drawn away from process into distracting thoughts about the results. We all came to expect that Tiger would do what Tiger did, that he’d hit those shots only he could hit, and he’d make those clutch putts to win. I’m not privy to his private thoughts, but I imagine he expected it too. Why wouldn’t he? His history said that’s what would happen, and it happened to him with incredible consistency. Just be Tiger Woods and the outcome takes care of itself.

But things are different now. That great outcome isn’t so certain for Tiger, and everyone is asking when he’ll be back to his winning ways. When he’s asked how his game is coming along, that’s an outcome question in disguise. People are really asking when he’s going to win again. But Tiger’s answer shows he knows that outcome isn’t where he needs to be focused. He says it’s a process, that his game is coming together, that he just needs time to heal and get back into competitive golf. But then the outcome disappoints, attention is drawn away from the process of recovery and toward missing the cut, and we’re all back to asking the outcome questions. Will he win or place high at the Fry’ Did he pick that venue because he thought he could win there? Will he win matches at the President’s Cup? Is he playing well enough to justify the pick?

I like to play well, but I can enjoy a round while I play less than my best. After all, that’s what I do most of the time. Playing golf does not equal playing great golf for me. It doesn’t equal great golf for most of us. I remember an interview with Jack Nicklaus several years ago when he was asked if he was sure he should stop playing in competition. After all, his performance showed he could still make the cut. His answer was something like “Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? I don’t play just to make the cut.” Playing golf for Jack isn’t what it is for most of the human race, and it isn’t for Tiger either. A big part of the process of playing golf has been an unheard of level of success, and now that outcome has been separated from the process.

I have no idea if and when Tiger will return to his winning ways. I don’t think anyone does. But he hasn’t looked like he was enjoying himself very much the few times he has played during the past months. Playing and winning with ridiculous frequency were synonymous for him in the past, and much of the enjoyment of and commitment to golf must have been derived from winning so often. Getting back to winning may require more enjoyment of the game itself, with less attention to the outcome.


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