This week my travels find me in Hawaii, where I had the privilege of officiating the marriage of my good friends Jun Lee and Adam Brooks. Beyond being a great person and close acquaintance, Jun also happens to be a professional golfer at the Cinnabar Hills Golf Club in San Jose, CA. She was personally trained by Hank Haney, Butch Harman and Paul Runyan.
I met Jun in 1999—the same year Tiger Woods completed a record-breaking season with eight wins, including the PGA Championship. Jun’s own impressive golf background came into sharp focus this week as the 2019 Masters Tournament was played at the Augusta National Golf Course. On Sunday, the world cheered on Tiger Woods in his pursuit of a Masters championship … and in stunning fashion, he won.
It was the fifth Masters win for the golfing great but perhaps the sweetest of them all. In April 2017 Woods underwent spinal fusion surgery. In December 2017 he was ranked 1,199th in the world. In the first half of 2018 he played just four rounds of golf, tying for 23rd place at Torrey Pines, which ranked him 539th in the world.
“I didn’t think I’d ever play again,” he told ESPN reporters. “When I was laying on the ground and couldn’t move for a number of months, golf was the furthest thing from my mind.”
How did he do it? How did he master the seemingly un-masterable and go on to win the Masters? How did he rise from ranking 1,199th in the world to now ranking 6th (and ever-climbing)?
In a word: Habits. Woods himself has proclaimed himself to be a “creature of habit.” (This habits explanation also fits nicely with our Thoughts on Leadership theme of Habits Month.)
Golf.com reporter Dylan Dethier, who was on hand at Augusta to watch Woods’ 18th hole putt sink to a stunning victory, recently wrote this about the feat:
This was a win for having goals, for going through bad times and coming out the other side. Think of something you really wanted when you were three years old, or a project you started in 1997. Well, how’s it going now? Chipping away at it every day? Woods’ frailties have made him more relatable in recent years, but it was always his superhuman determination that inspired awe. He started something and wants to finish it.
To rehab after his surgery, Woods followed a strict daily routine. He woke up early in the morning for a run, then stretched for 30-40 minutes and did high-rep weight training. He then spent three hours at the range before playing 9-18 holes on the golf course. After, he practiced his short game for at least an hour or two, went for another run then ended each day playing another sport, usually basketball or tennis. He also balanced the intense workout and practice routine with a high-protein diet filled with healthy carbs and fats and lean, heart-healthy foods.
Woods’ daily routine is a super-charged example of what James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits” calls habit stacking. He writes: “One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top.” Clear also identifies the habit-stacking formula, which is: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
For Woods, once he established a habit of running, he could stack that onto his warm-up and stretch routine, which he’d stack on top of his daily golf practice then to that add his post-golf run and on and on until he had a complete day of positive, beneficial habits. Habit stacking increases the likelihood that you’ll stick with a new behavior because it’s attached to a behavior that’s already an automatic habit.
So, what’s the message? To accomplish any goal—from winning the Masters to winning a new deal—you must put habits in place that support those achievements. For Tiger, it was a strict workout and diet routine that included a series of positive habits stacked on top of one another, to rehabilitate his mind, body and golf game. And yes, it worked, catapulting Woods from 1,199th in the world to a Masters champion. In the words of Woods this past Sunday: “Last year I was lucky to be playing again. At the previous champions dinner I was really struggling. To now be the champion … unreal for me to experience this. I couldn’t be more happy and excited.”