How to beat Tiger, from someone who knows

Jeff Passan

TUCSON, Ariz. – To begin the lesson, Nick O'Hern would like you to keep your mouth shut. Please, for the sake of everyone. It's the sleeping-dog rule, and if you really want to know how to beat Tiger Woods in a head-to-head match, just know that those who wake him might as well tear up their scorecards.

"One thing you don't want to do is piss him off," O'Hern says over the phone. He's sitting at an airport awaiting his flight to Cancun, where he'll play in the B-side PGA Tour event this weekend while Tiger returns among 63 footnotes at the Accenture Match Play. O'Hern is the world's 117th-ranked golfer, a left-handed Australian who overcompensates for short drives by expertly wielding a long-shafted putter.

He is also the greatest Tiger slayer alive.

And surely he would have warned Stephen Ames and Rory Sabbatini to press the mute button when it comes to Tiger, lest they open a Pandora's box of hurt. During his match-play waltzes with Tiger in 2005 and 2007, O'Hern shook his hand, wished him good luck and pretended like he wasn't there.

Which is the second lesson. The toughest, too. Because not only does Tiger draw crowds like an Obama rally, they're moving entities, masses of people shuffling along just to catch a glimpse. That Tiger has spent the past eight months out of the public eye rehabilitating his leg only further feeds the frenzy.

"The secret to playing him is playing your own game and not getting caught up in the aura that surrounds him," O'Hern said. "You see him at tournaments. He has this presence around him. You have to stay in your own bubble. The roars and the excitement in the crowd – he tends to feed off that. There's an instant where I thought it was going to be tough. You have to dig in and get back to what you know how to do."

In O'Hern's case, it happened to fulfill lesson No. 3: Try, if at all possible, to hit shorter off the tee than Tiger (which, truth be told, ain't too hard). O'Hern found a significant advantage in getting dibs on the second shot by dint of his puny drives, then putting the pressure on Woods by hitting greens in regulation. Woods generally takes pressure, slathers it with some barbeque sauce and downs it in one gulp.

Not with O'Hern. In the second round of the '05 tournament, he closed out Tiger with a 30-foot putt to beat him 3 and 1. Two years later, the two went to the 20th hole before O'Hern's 12-foot putt vanquished Woods again.

"Aussies don't get intimidated so much by people," O'Hern said. "If you're good enough, we say, 'Well done.' If not, we shake hands and get a beer."

Finally, the fourth lesson: Beer solves everything.

Wait. Wrong textbook. It is: Win the first hole. For a very simple reason.

"You do not want to trail Tiger Woods," O'Hern said.

So, Brendan Jones, take this advice and do with it what you please. The 33-year-old Jones, like O'Hern and another Tiger ouster, Peter O'Malley, is Australian, so he's got that going for him. And … uh … um … who's Brendan Jones again?

He mostly plays the Japanese Golf Tour and has never seen a tournament with an $8.5 million prize, let alone played the world No. 1 in it. Jones sees it as a privilege, and O'Hern would agree, especially since he's on the outside this year.

Last week, O'Hern returned to the tour after missing four months following knee and thumb surgery. His game isn't what it should be. So instead of schmoozing with Tiger, as he does near their homes in Florida's Isleworth golf community, O'Hern gets to walk with Carlos Franco and Alex Cejka in the Mayakoba Golf Classic's first round Thursday.

Golf is funny that way. The only man in the world who has consistently beaten Tiger Woods isn't even good enough to make the year's biggest one-on-one tournament.

That's the sort of lesson no one should have to learn.