Another major was recently completed and Tiger Woods continued to baffle us with his golf performance. His two day score at the US Open earlier this month was one of his worst on record as a professional. In fact, only five players had weaker performances in the 155-man field. Tiger’s game has clearly changed in the last few years and an important question remains with no clear answer: What has exactly changed in Tiger so he no longer is this genius golfer who could do no wrong? Short answer: his obsessive and perfectionistic personality has shifted from asset to liability. But read further and I will explain the psychological causes and implications of this shift and compare him to the current winner of the US Open, Jordan Spieth.
Many high achieving athletes know it is impossible to accomplish goals without rigorous and obsessive training and years of skill perfecting. Tiger, with a combination of incredible talent and a phenomenal desire to be the best, became a mastermind at honing his own skills. But a factor often neglected in understanding his success and motivation is his father’s psychological role in helping him perfect his golf. Constantly monitoring his progress since Tiger was three; he remained physically and emotionally near to his son until his untimely death from cancer. Tiger’s biggest fan was gone and, stripped from his anchor, his mindset began to shift. Most famously he began a long series of sexual affairs leading to the symbolic ‘golf club’ argument with his wife. The world was shocked at Tiger’s “disgraceful” behavior, something many decried as uncharacteristic. In fact, his behavior was very much in character, but one that is deeply private to many people with perfectionistic traits.
The sharp contrast between a private and public self is a central characteristic of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD – different from OCD, ritualistic anxiety-based behaviors). Individuals with this personality are intellectual, emotionally distant, control their work and family environment to the nth degree and are extremely sharp at using logic to explain behaviors and thoughts. Tiger is a classic case: every response to a question about his game is logical or technical and is void of emotions.
What is the problem, you may ask, as we know it harms athletes to be emotional when they are performing – irrespective of whether they are on a beam, netting that 3-pointer to win, or sinking that 10 foot birdie putt. The problem is that, if there are no emotional outlets off the sport field, something will ‘break’. Think of it as a pressure cooker about to explode. Tiger had his father as the emotional component that kept his behaviors in check, provided a strong source of love and support and, well, contained the pressure. When he died, the emotional void needed to be filled. With no close friends, a guarded personality, a regimented and highly controlled lifestyle, he needed an outlet ‘to let go’ and feel intense emotions. He filled it through engaging in uninhibited sex with pseudo-strangers. For Tiger, having sex with women he paid to do whatever he wanted was a powerful release of emotional energy. When his mistresses began to talk, he began to fall apart. Lost without his emotional outlet, he began to make psychological mistakes that continue to haunt him. He stripped himself of the folks closest to him including his caddie and swing coach. His wife leaving him was predictable and Tiger was soon left with only his golf swing to analyze with further attempts to obsess and perfect it.
As long as he remains resistant to addressing why his father’s death created such an emotional void and explore why he has difficulties expressing emotions, his performances will continue to be predictably unpredictable. He neither needs intensive therapy for sex addiction nor did he need couples counseling when his marriage began to crumble and when he separated from skiing champion Lindsey Vonn. What he needs is to accept emotional vulnerabilities are normal aspects of life and realize that letting go of perfectionistic and obsessive tendencies can, paradoxically, give him more game control. Freed from the need to constantly perfect, he can begin to show a (vulnerable) human side that almost tricked a generation of marveled spectators he was void of. So when Mr. Woods was about to hit a shot out of the woods at a recent tournament and a spectator said, “let’s see a Bubba Watson” – referring to the best known champion of intuitive play – the comment may have been a little more profound than originally intended.