Tiger Woods clinched his first win in five years after four back surgeries, a DUI arrest and a troubled personal life threatened to keep him coming up short. The golfer’s incredible comeback required not only exceptional skill, perseverance and resilience, but also the composure to not choke or panic on the final hole.
“Choking is about thinking too much,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. “Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.” With a two-shot lead heading into the last hole and a huge crowd trailing him, Woods could have succumbed to either. But he didn't overthink the historic significance of a victory, the consequences for his career, the next day's news headlines or his chance to overturn the media narrative of a washed-out champion. Nor did he lose control and forget his training. After two decades of playing professionally and navigating high-stakes situations, he was able to remain calm and focused and finish the job.
Other athletes have failed to control their thoughts and emotions, channel their raw talents and remember what they've practised. Gladwell highlights Jana Novotna's loss at Wimbledon in 1993, when she was one point away from taking a 5-1 lead in the final set and almost certainly lifting the trophy. Novotna began contemplating her shots and “playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner”, writes Gladwell, causing her to double-fault on her serves, mishit overheads and ultimately snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Woods’ strategy was to focus on getting the basics right. After his final drive landed in a sand trap, he didn’t overcomplicate things. “When I was hitting that bunker shot, just like every weekend hacker, just whatever you do, don't blade this thing out of bounds, he commented afterward. Yet he nearly lost his composure while thinking about his unlikely return to the top, after critics ruled out a comeback and clamoured for him to resign with dignity. “I had a hard time not crying on that last hole. It means a lot more to me now…because I didn’t know if I’d ever be out here again playing.”
Winning took more than a cool head though. It also required tenacity: this was Woods' first full season in five years and his sixth competition in seven weeks. He gathered momentum throughout 2018, securing several top-ten positions and showing the occasional flash of brilliance. Being the epitome of a “clutch” player, or one who responds to intense pressure by finding an extra gear to clinch victory, was undoubtedly helpful too.
After a trophy drought that would shake anyone’s confidence, Woods could have easily choked or panicked when victory was in sight. But his deep experience – he has now won 80 PGA Tour events and clinched his first of 14 majors at age 21 – kicked in and, coupled with a powerful desire to prove his naysayers wrong, he was able to go all the way. Once again, he Woods proved he's a golfing legend and born champion.