Tiger changed his swing.

Tiger Woods, the most successful golfer of all time, is up to his fourth swing change. Brad Kelly asks what we can learn.

When Tiger Woods stormed onto the scene to win his first Masters title at Augusta in 1997, his violent, free flowing hit off the tee instantly won him fans across the globe.

But what did Tiger do after collecting the green jacket? He immediately went back to work on his swing. Why?

The casual observer of golf must be wondering how slight changes in the tightness of Tiger’s grip, distance from the tee, the shape of shoulder and hip rotation, the width of the feet, the position of the head, the angle of the back, length of the swing, and the height of the club can really have on Woods’ earning capacity and dominance on the green.

But Wood was doing what all of us do with the everyday tools that get us faster and further and smarter. Just on a much grander scale. He was baking the movement of the club and the ping of the ball deep into his neural pathways.

In his excellent book, Intelligence in the Flesh, Guy Claxton maps this intimate relationship between our biological bodies and the tools we fashion to make our lives easier and more productive.

“The fact that our tools ‘become us’ also begins to explain why people grow so fond of and dependent on them. Chefs become attached to their knives, musicians to their instruments, artists to their brushes, carpenters to their chisels … Tools become, psychologically as well as neurally, so much a part of us that their loss feels like an amputation,” Claxton explains.

“The fact that our tools ‘become us’ also begins to explain why people grow so fond of and dependent on them.” – Guy Claxton

Our material world is saturated with the tools that augment the body for recovery, performance, work or leisure. Spectacles, surfboards and smartphones all open up possibilities for being in the world and are an extension of ourselves.

None of us know what it feels like to hit a ball down the fairway with the terrifying power and accuracy of a Tiger Woods, or to move liquid-like across the backline like a Roger Federer, or to be gifted the hand-eye coordination to land a 3 point from mid-court like a Michael Jordan. But you don’t need to be an elite athlete to know how the body moulds to the rhythms of the tools we use through repetition.

This relationship between the brain, body and the world is part of a wider discussion in Claxton’s book about the oft overlooked intelligence in the body. Intelligence in the flesh makes visible the sophisticated conversation between mechanics (movement), chemicals (neuro) and electricity (nerves) in our bodies, and extends into how we use the material world to become more intelligent.

Traditionally, the brain has usurped the role as the intelligent organ and we excluded the body from the conversation about smarts.

That exclusion showed up in what we considered intelligent. We valued abstract reasoning over feeling, maths over dance, and trusted logic over gut instinct. But Claxton suggests we need to think of the brain less as the command centre and more as the chat room in our bodies where we can stage a conversation.

We risk sidelining the role of the body in the conversation about intelligence at our peril.

Especially when we swing a golf club.