Jordan Spieth versus Tiger Woods

Jordan Spieth versus Tiger Woods

As the British Open is about to begin on the “Old Course”, two questions are on the minds of golf fans. The first is, “How will Jordan Spieth do?” The second, “What about Tiger Woods?”

These two golfers are on the radar for opposite reasons. Spieth is a young “prodigy” who has won the Masters and the US Open – the first two major golf tournaments of the season. Woods is the fallen superstar struggling to regain his glory.

As people have been watching Spieth’s rapid rise and Woods’ fall from grace, comparisons abound. Many compare their performances at the same age, or how they did in a specific tournament. But there is one comparison that fascinates me more than the others: the early sport experiences of the two athletes are at opposite extremes of the spectrum.

Spieth is a multisport athlete, having played baseball, basketball, and football as he learned to golf. Woods, on the other hand, is the poster child for early specialization. He was bred as a golfer from the moment he could walk. Just watch the video below, which shows what Woods was doing at age 2.

What difference does it make?

If you believe the experts, Spieth should benefit in the long run. In a recent popular post, coach and author John O’Sullivan summarized what many researchers are finding: athletes with a multi-sport upbringing have “better overall skills and ability, are smarter, more creative players and less afflicted by over-use injuries” than athletes who specialize in one sport early.

In other words, kids who are raised to be complete athletes fare better than kids who are premature specialists.

Only time will tell if Spieth will continue to benefit from being well-rounded. But we can look at Woods to see if the veteran golfer shows the negative effects science predicts will result from early specialization.

Woods is one of the most skilled golfers ever. For most of his career, he was able to fabricate masterful golf shots. But the well seems to have dried up. Woods’ skills, ability, and creativity seem to have totally disappeared. How is that possible?

Many would point to Woods’ well-known personal issues as explanation. I believe there is more to it than that. When I watch Woods play, I see an athlete with a body broken by over-use injuries. I also see a man who has no answers. No solutions to his problems.

Living the greatest nightmare a performer can face, Woods can’t seem to change his approach. After a disastrous 2015 US Open, Woods was asked what he would do to improve his game. “I just have to work myself out of it,” was his answer.

It appears that Woods is stuck in the techniques and thoughts that were grooved into him as a child. Both physically and mentally, he has only one set of solutions to the problems he faces. To borrow a musical analogy, he has only one register.

This is the intangible negative of raising a specialist from the cradle. Such athletes become “robots”, which is how the legendary Arnold Palmer described Woods in an interview.

It’s impossible to tell how this comparison will play out. Spieth may continue his spectacular progression and reap the benefits of his multi-sport upbringing or he could fade as rapidly as he rose. Woods could be stuck with a one-track mind or may learn to adapt his game and his perspective to save his career.

One thing I do know is that it will be interesting to watch.

As I anticipate watching The Open this weekend, a few things are clear for me. First, Spieth and Woods are both elite golfers who have achieved a level of performance few children will ever attain. Second, the evidence that a diverse range of sports and activities is good for kids is strong, so I make sure my kids have those opportunities. If the time comes when either of my kids decide that they want to specialize in one sport, I will support them … as long as they are an appropriate age.

Editor’s note:  Spieth finished 4th, missing a play-off for the championship by one shot while Woods did not make the cut and was eliminated from completing the tournament.

One response to “Jordan Spieth versus Tiger Woods

  1. Some may argue that the Woods approach worked. Woods is arguably the greatest golfer of all time. His body is breaking down just like most men in their late 30s/early 40s. Most professional athletes are retired by the time Woods started to decline. Spieth is still not quite one of the best. Still, I think Spieth has a healthier approach and if I were to choose between the two paths, I’d take Spieth’s path in a heartbeat. Woods never really seems happy and when he does win, it looks like he’s relieved.

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