Little Tiger

With the Masters golf tournament starting up, it’s a good time to go ask a question. We know how amazingly talented Tiger Woods is right now. But what was he like when he started out?  When he was a little kid? 

Fortunately, there’s an answer:

The answer is, he’s pretty good. A decent swing, under lots of pressure.

On the other hand, though, Little Tiger’s not noticeably better than this equally young kid, or any of the dozens of other equally young kids (search “baby Tiger Woods on YouTube for a sampler). 


I think the thing to take away from these images isn’t the skill of Tiger’s swing—which, while good, isn’t that different from other similar-age kids who’ve had coaching (particularly when you consider that Earl Woods had introduced his son to golf before he could walk, and coached him well—to say nothing of the chutzpah to show off his son on national television).

The element that makes it different isn’t skill; it’s emotion. The moment happens about 25 seconds in – after Tiger hits the shot, he stares at the ball, watching the result of his  swing, completely oblivious to everything around him (no easy task, considering the seventies fashions). It’s not just focus or concentration. This tiny kid is utterly enthralled and absorbed by the physical act of hitting a golf ball and seeing where it goes. He wants to hit it again. And again. 

The look brings to mind a passage from a New Yorker story by Malcolm Gladwell (no small talent himself):

Before he was two years old, it is said, Wayne Gretzky watched hockey games on television, enraptured, and slid his stockinged feet on the linoleum in imitation of the players, then cried when the game was over, because he could not understand how something so sublime should have to come to an end. This was long before Gretzky was any good at the game itself, or was skilled in any of its aspects, or could create even the smallest of chunks. But what he had was what the physical genius must have before any of the other layers of expertise fall into place: he had stumbled onto the one thing that, on some profound aesthetic level, made him happy.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has said that all parenting advice can be distilled to two things: 1) Pay attention to what your kids stare at; 2) Praise them for their effort.

Dweck is talking about exactly this kind of stare – the moment a kid gets completely lost in a task, when they’re enraptured in a way that defies rationality.  That emotion fuels the effort that, over time (10,000 hours), builds the kind of skill circuits that produce a Tiger or a Gretzky.

This week, sports commentators will be explaining Tiger’s success by talking a lot about his “determination” and “will to win” – which is true enough. But beneath that – and far more important – is something even more primal and unconscious: a little kid who fell in love with a game.