DUBLIN, Ohio – Tiger Woods is staring at his ball nestled in a thick patch of bentgrass behind the 16th green. No, he’s stalking it. Examining the lie, contemplating his options.
Multiple permutations are running through his mind. Five. Ten. Hell, it could be a hundred. If he uses too much loft and too much strength, the ball will hit the green and keep on rolling off the other side. If he uses too little loft and too little strength, it’ll never even get there. Every single maneuver in the swing must be absolutely perfect in order to achieve the desired result.
As he prepares to hit the shot, Woods’ inimitable frame, draped in his familiar Sunday red and black, is bordered by a large scoreboard nearby. Maybe he looks, maybe he doesn’t. It shows him one stroke off the lead, but it almost doesn’t matter.
What matters is this shot. Right now. He can’t control the other contenders, can’t play defense to prevent them from winning. He can only control the ball sitting at his feet and where it will wind up seconds later.
There are some who may claim this is just a golf shot. Just one in what will turn out to be 279 times this week that one of his 14 clubs will make impact with the ball.
But they would be wrong. This isn’t just another golf shot. This is a moment.
Tiger Woods thrives on moments.
Performance and talent are what separate the good from the great. We know this much. It’s written into record books, reflected in every statistic.
What separates the great from the greatest, though, is something more intangible. It can’t be proven by money earned or public adoration or even victory totals.
It’s the ability to live in the moment. Not simply withstand it or persevere, but the ability to embrace all aspects of the situation, assess the importance of the result and succeed to the highest possible degree.
Just ask Jack Nicklaus. The cherished host of this Memorial Tournament knows a thing or two about living in the moment. He won 73 career PGA Tour titles and an all-time-best 18 major championships, but the mystical numbers are superseded by the magical moments.
There was the 1-iron on the final hole of the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, 238 yards uphill and into a breeze, that was the icing on the cake in a victory over rival Arnold Palmer. Another 1-iron in the same event five years later, this one soaring toward the flagstick at Pebble Beach’s exquisite penultimate hole, landing just 3 inches from its intended target. The 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole at Augusta National in 1986, when he raised his putter in celebration with the ball halfway there, the lasting image of his sixth Masters win at the age of 46.
So yeah, Nicklaus knows a moment when he sees one. And with Woods’ ball in such a precarious position behind the green, he understands the gravity of the situation, knows the importance of the moment.
“It was either fish or cut bait,” Jack would later say. “He had one place to land the ball. He's playing a shot that if he leaves it short, he's going to leave himself again a very difficult shot; if he hits it long, he's going to probably lose the tournament.”
Wedged somewhere in the back of Woods’ mind, as he is assessing the lie and selecting a club and deciding on the proper trajectory and reading the green is the knowledge that if this shot is absolutely perfect, he has the opportunity to tie Nicklaus’ mark of 73 career wins, second only to Sam Snead on the all-time list.
For Tiger, it isn’t simply a chance to tie a legend, but to equal his hero, the golfer whose likeness adorned his bedroom walls as a child. To accomplish the feat in Jack’s own house, with the man himself watching his every movement, only adds to the significance of the moment.
And so with all of those permutations rattling around in his head, all of the thoughts about trying to win and trying to equal his hero, Woods stands over the ball and sets himself for the shot. In a week marred by cell phone distractions from outside the ropes, thousands of fans remain eerily silent. Teeth are gritted, fists are clenched, nails are bitten.
Woods makes his swing and the hush continues, every observer holding their breath in unison. The ball lands on the very back part of the green and catches the slope. It rolls toward the hole and the silence becomes deafening anticipation, the hair on the back of thousands of necks collectively standing on end.
It keeps rolling until it finds the right edge of the cup and drops inside. Mayhem ensues. Woods pumps his fist, an instinctual yet passionate reaction. Fans scream uncontrollably at the top of their lungs. Scoreboard operators quickly scurry to update his total.
The shot helps separate the great from the good. It propels Woods past his fellow contenders, leading to victory. His 73rd, tying the man who hosted the tournament, the man who served as Woods’ hero throughout his childhood.
It is about more than that, though. It is about the moment.
This is what separates the great from the greatest. The ability to live in the moment, to embrace it, to find the highest possible degree of success when it absolutely matters the most.
Tiger Woods thrives on moments.