Tiger-nomics: Glorious Competition

Golf Is Not That Different from the Free-Enterprise System

The ever-mounting accomplishments in the short professional golf career of Tiger Woods are nothing less than historic. In fact, Woods’s mastery of golf offers lessons for duffers and PGA Tour pros alike. But his feats also serve as stunning reminders about the importance of competition not only on the golf course, but also in everyday economic life.

Consider Woods’s phenomenal record. In 1999 he won eight tournaments on the PGA Tour, but managed to top that in 2000 with nine. From the end of the 1999 season into early 2000, Woods managed to string together six tour victories in a row, tying Ben Hogan for the second-longest winning streak ever. Through the close of the 2000 golf season, Tiger claimed 24 career tour victories.

But when it comes to golf’s four majors—the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship—what the young Mr. Woods has done is even more impressive. He ran away with the 1997 Masters by a record margin and with the lowest 72-hole score ever posted. Two years later he went on to win the 1999 PGA Championship.

Tiger truly made his mark, however, in 2000. In June he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with a record 12-under-par score, and by the largest margin—15 strokes. In July, Woods traveled across the pond to win the British Open with a new scoring record—19 under par. With this victory at historic St. Andrews, Tiger Woods completed the career Grand Slam (a win in each major) at the youngest age ever—24 years old. Only four other golfers have ever won a career Grand Slam—Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Gene Sarazen.

In August, Tiger went on to defend his title at the PGA Championship and take his fifth major. This tied Hogan’s record of winning three straight majors.

For good measure, Woods captured the Canadian Open in September to complete golf’s Triple Crown—winning the U.S., British, and Canadian Opens in one year. Lee Trevino was the only previous Triple Crown winner, in 1971.

Woods’s performance last year arguably was the greatest ever. And no one disputes that there has never been anyone like Tiger Woods before, and that the game of golf will never be the same again.

Golf and Free Enterprise

Interestingly, golf is not all that different from the free-enterprise system. As I noted previously in these pages (“Fore: Watch Out for Government Golf!” August 1997), the PGA Tour golfer is a model of the rugged, individualistic entrepreneur. He pays his own expenses and is compensated according to his performance week to week. If the touring pro fails to make the 36-hole cut, he gets paid nothing. Yet if victorious, he earns a huge paycheck. As a result, competition is fierce. In Fortune magazine (May 12, 1997), Tim Smith, former deputy commissioner of the PGA, labeled tour players as the “ultimate capitalists.”

Some, though, worry that Woods is bad for competition in golf. Even a handful of tour players feel that when he plays, the real contest is for second place.

In reality, Woods stands out as the fiercest of rivals. Rather than having a dampening effect, his dominance has turned up the competition.

The same, of course, is true of the most successful businesses—from Standard Oil in the early twentieth century to Microsoft at the century’s close. In fact, jokes have circulated on the Internet speculating that if Woods maintains his winning ways, federal antitrust regulators may investigate. Antitrust enforcers have failed to grasp that the most dominant businesses innovated and served consumers to gain market share. And they have to work to stay on the cutting edge to maintain their dominance.

Woods obviously possesses enormous talent. But he combines that talent with hard work, an incredible ability to concentrate, shot-making creativity, and discipline of both mind and body. Woods also is a risk taker. As has been widely reported, after his 1997 Masters win, he actually decided his golf swing needed to improve, and proceeded to completely rebuild his swing so that it would hold up under all types of playing conditions and over time.

Woods has methodically corrected each weakness. At various points, he was thought to be too wild off the tee, not exact enough in his wedge play, inconsistent in his putting, or poor out of the sand. He worked at each, and now he is the best driver and the best putter and possesses the best short game on the tour.

All golfers compete against themselves as well—trying to beat their best performances. Woods is no different. His coach, Butch Harmon, told Time magazine in August of last year: “He’s only at about 75% of what he’s capable of achieving. That’s the scary part.”

After winning the career Grand Slam, Woods was quoted by Sports Illustrated (July 31, 2000), saying, “I thought I’d be at this point faster than it took.” In fact, Woods has said time and again that he expects to win every tournament in which he plays. To some that may sound arrogant. In reality, though, that is how the greatest players think. Jack Nicklaus was the same way.

Competing Against History

Woods also competes against history, and Nicklaus, who holds golf’s most impressive record—winning 18 professional majors—is Woods’s primary opponent, along with future PGA Tour stars. Much like any leading business, Woods must stay sharp to compete with not only his rival on a particular Sunday afternoon, but also against those he will face next month, next year, and a decade from now.

As noted in many news reports, Woods taped Nicklaus’s accomplishments to the headboard of his bed at the age of 10. In the August 16, 2000, New York Times, Woods spoke judiciously: “Am I pursuing Jack Nicklaus’s records? He set the bar very high, and he won the biggest ones over and over again. Have I tried to chase him? I don’t think it’s realistic to think about that yet until you get into double digits, maybe the teens. It’s going to take a long time. Hopefully, things will go well for a long period of time in my career.”

While most golfers could not fathom matching Nicklaus, reading between the lines, Tiger Woods basically said: Just give me some time, and I have a real shot. By the way, at the age of 24, Nicklaus claimed three majors. At 24, Woods had five.

Woods not only has a chance to catch Nicklaus, but could also far surpass the Golden Bear’s record in the majors. Along the way, Woods’s commitment to excellence will continue to force his fellow PGA Tour players to push their games to new levels.

In the end, competition is the hallmark of Tiger-nomics. It applies to golf; it applies to the economy. After all, looming just over the horizon promises to be someone with a better putting stroke, or the next great idea or innovation.