What can agile teams learn from Tiger Woods?

So, Tiger Woods did the unbelievable on Sept 23rd, 2018 by winning for the 80th time on the PGA Tour, and for the first time in five years. He dominated the PGA Tour Championship from beginning to end and almost FedEx Cup too.

Screen Shot 2018-09-24 at 01.54.24

Tiger now has completed “The Comeback”. It wasn’t “his comeback” or “a comeback”, it was “The Comeback”; an event of such low probability that it becomes an iconic moment in sports history. As far as winning personal monsters, overcoming challenges and reaching goals goes, Tiger’s 80th win is Silver Screen -stuff.

Tiger Woods might not only be the best golfer ever, but the best athlete too.

This was a big win as all the best players (Rose, Rory, Koepka, DJ, Molinari, Rahm etc.) participated, they were all there this Sunday. Everybody wanted Tiger to beat the odds. When he finally did, the golfing world went completely mad, as a collective catharsis was reached.

Tiger’s Career (or to Mordor and Back)

We can say that Tiger dominated the game of Golf for a stunning 13 years (1997-2010), during which time he was roughly world number one the whole time. For non-golfers, his dominance is hard to explain; ss he entered the PGA Tour in 1995, some fellow golf professionals described Tiger’s shot-sound be like a “gunshot”, it literally sounded different than anyone else’s. It was optimised power.

He was so much better than others, he was one of the longest drivers, probably the best iron player ever, very accurate with approach shots, a genius chipper, incredible putter, and his mind was stable, he knew how to win. For long time, even when he played bad, or was injured, he still managed to win. He was flawless.

Tiger’s feedback loops are short; he hits prototype clubs only a few times.

His creativity and curiosity around the greens is above anything I’ve ever seen. He’s always been an eager learner and his learning-feedback loops are incredibly short. For example, he doesn’t hit prototype golf clubs more than a few times (a few minutes), because after that his mind/body has adapted to the club, hence making club’s possible shortcomings difficult to judge. That’s incredible level of self-awareness!

Furthermore, he most often is the sharpest dressed man on the field – with a catch – he always wears red on Sundays for luck.


On top of that he has trained more quantitatively and effectively than the others and renewed golf’s physical training. He always ate healthy, and didn’t drink, unforeseen in golf before him. I can only think of South-Africa’s Gary Player, as someone who understood physical training and diet before Tiger in golfing circles.

Please see below a graph I put together, visualising Tiger’s world ranking (the blue line, the lower the better) per year, and some significant life events.

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Interestingly his father’s death in 2006 didn’t have a direct impact to his ranking, he remained #1 for years after that. Tiger hasn’t talked about indirect effect, and I suspect his father’s passing was a major blow to his moral development – thus creating an opening for infidelity and private chaos later.

Documentaries tell Tiger loved training and used much of his childhood practicing and playing golf. On the surface, his father’s interviews imply it was Tiger’s choice to practice and play so much, but I don’t buy that. There are innate structures in young boys’ mind to seek father’s attention and golf might have been a coping mechanism for Tiger to do just that. Of course he loved golf if it meant spending time with dad! I can be wrong here, of course – I haven’t heard Tiger’s interviews on this specific topic.

Year 2010 was turbulent privately and on the turf: infidelity scandal, divorce and a 5-month hiatus from the game – but even with that he only dropped from #1 to #2 (*). The following years, 2011 and 2012, he clearly struggled but remained in Top-25 (*). In this time he fired his long-time Caddy, and parter ways with old swing coach.
(* = end-of-season rankings).

His 2013 – 2017 were terrible, he played very little, changed swing coaches and suffered from injuries and terrible back pains. He underwent many surgeries last of which was a fusion back surgery in 2017.

Right before season 2018 started he parted ways with his latest swing coach. According to my knowledge, he didn’t use a swing coach for season 2018 which is a bit weird since he practically had to learn to swing again. His movement after the fusion surgery has been compromised and he needed to find a way hit the ball long with a different body. Working without swing coaches is very rare pro-golfers.


But his 2018 season has been turned out to be phenomenal! Game improving from “good PGA”-level near to “Vintage Tiger”-level as season has progressed. His performance has surely exceeded everybody’s expectations and he’s shot up the rankings over 600 positions to current #12 (my projection, will fix later once official listing is in…). Noteworthy is also, that his media-work has been humble and dignified, with a hint of humour – he knows his talent but still doesn’t make a big number about himself.

I can make a few assumptions based on 2018 season:

  1. He must have found his backbone. 🙂
  2. His ability to observe, learn and self-correct must be way above the norm
  3. He must have a trusting relationship with Caddy and support-team
  4. He must have big goals (otherwise he could already have quitted)

Without these three things, his year 2018 performance could not have been possible. Now about those goals, he’s probably motivated to break Jack Nicklaus’s major record. My prediction is that he will. Go Tiger!

Parallels to Agility

With tongue-in-cheek, let’s look at some parallels to agility:

  • Game of Golf has tens of rules that evolve thru time slowly (industry standards)
  • Golf Courses have local rules (company best practices)
  • Golf Tournament lasts four days and consists of four rounds (4 epics)
  • Round of Golf consists of 18 Holes, slow play is penalised (18 sprints, time-boxed)
  • Golf Hole consists of 3-5 strokes (3-5 stories)
  • Each shot is analysed (planned and visualised) and executed (story planning)
  • Golfer, Caddy and Coach form a long-lasting, trust-based collaborative unit (high-performance team)
  • Since situations on the course are unique, they must be solved on the spot (agile value: respond to change)
  • Best golfers learn from each success and mistake (Kaizen)
  • Golfers avoid swing-changes during rounds (Scrum’s sprints are untouchable)
  • Weather can force golfers to completely change their game-plan (unplanned work, change requests)
  • Golfers, Caddies and Coaches de-brief after each round (retrospective)
  • Pre-round planning covers playing style for specific holes (release planning)
  • Planning above one round is omitted because it’s irrelevant (long term-planning)

In other words, a golf tournament is like a miniature software project, executed by a high-performance team in iterative fashion over multiple sprints. Potential poor performance in hole (sprint) must be soon forgotten and new sprint to be started from a clean slate. (Yeah, I agree, this is a bit cheesy comparison, but let’s see if something good can be generated out of this analogy…)

The environment in golf is ever-changing – identical to software projects.

At the very least, we should be able to agree that golf-shots, like user stories, are unique. Two identical golf shots do not exist because there are too many variables (ball’s lie, ball’s characteristics, today’s physical form, mental state, wind, sun, grass, day of time, moisture, hole location etc.). The environment in golf is ever-changing, like in agile software projects. Things changing makes long-term planning error-prone and not practical.

Learning Points

Tiger is unknowingly following some of the Lean-Agile Principles. The learning points from the above parallels, and from Tiger Woods’ case in particular should be familiar to fellow agilists:

  • Don’t give up when you are down
  • Roar when you are ahead
  • Don’t play for anyone but yourself
  • Build a stable team
  • Find your backbone
  • Act dignified
  • Remember humour
  • Continuously learn
  • Shorten feedback loops
  • Don’t be afraid to make changes
  • Be curious
  • Have big goals

That’s it, please share if this meant something to you.

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