In victory, Tiger changes his stripes

What's the secret to winning championships? What separates the good from the great, the great from the elite, the elite from the invincible?

Talent? Every professional athlete has talent. A killer instinct? It helps, but doesn't ensure execution.

The answer is malleability. The capacity to adapt to certain situations, to perform at an optimum level when eminent circumstances arise. It's what moves a quarterback with one of the best arms in NFL history to dash toward freedom on 3rd-and-6, vaulting into the air, spinning helicopter-like for a first down in the Super Bowl. It's what tells the most esteemed basketball star of a generation, known for his penetrating prowess, to pull up for a simple jump shot to win the NBA Finals.

We witnessed another such improvisation by one of sport's most sublime conquerors at this week's British Open. Of course, this being the plodding procession of golf, Tiger Woods' adjustment was more premeditated than those of John Elway or Michael Jordan. In the most strategic move we've seen from the world's top golfer in any of his 11 major championship victories, he transformed himself from Tiger the Aggressor into Tiger the Moderate right before our very eyes.

The man known for his booming tee shots went Corey Pavin on us, eschewing the driver in favor of 3-woods and 2-irons, poking and nudging his ball down the fairways. It was unfathomable, this alteration, like Superman stepping into a phone booth and changing into Clark Kent before rescuing Lois Lane.

And wouldn't you know, it worked. His driving accuracy, less than 55 percent this season, soared to 86 percent, tops in the field at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. It was the key to his successful title defense of the Claret Jug. His version of tucking it in for a first down or pulling up for a game-winning jumper.

"What I've been told by a bunch of people in the press is that I only do well on the bomber's courses," said Woods, who delights in proving wrong any doubters. "Hopefully, this will silence that. I played this course for what it was, played it very conservatively."

We've seen the many faces of Tiger Woods throughout his first decade as a professional golfer. The bright-eyed youngster who led golf once again to the forefront of global consciousness with a thrilling Masters victory in 1997. The stoic paladin who sliced and diced the U.S. Open field at Pebble Beach in 2000, winning by a record 15 strokes.

And now the wise sage, a man who has proven he can not only outplay the world's best golfers; he can outthink them. Consider it no coincidence that his initial major victory at age 30 was due more to comprehension and aptitude than simply swinging the club faster and harder than the next guy.

It was a plan formulated in the days prior to the Open. Having never seen Royal Liverpool in person, Woods evaluated his plan of attack during pre-tournament practice rounds, throughout which he was employing the driver.

"As I was playing the golf course, I would hit a couple of drives and the driver would go 350, 370 yards," Woods said of the 7,258-yard course, which some contended was playing to about 5,500 yards due to its fast, firm fairways. "How can you control that out here? You can't control that. The fairways are hard enough to hit as is, then you have driver and it's going that far. Now how hard is it to hit?"

Tiger deviated from the strategy only once in four days -- a first-round drive on the 16th hole that found an adjacent fairway. Otherwise, he stuck to the game plan. The result was an unfamiliar sight, as playing partners were routinely 60, 70, even 80 yards past Woods before their second shots. Of course, it disproved the new-age theory that distance always beats accuracy in golf these days, that Tiger is successful simply because he hits the ball further than the competition.

Check out this perception from ABC television analyst Paul Azinger, himself a major champion and former Ryder Cup teammate of Woods: "For the first time I can remember, Tiger Woods is playing from the same places as us mere mortals with his strategy this week. He's not really taking advantage of his massive power. And he's beating everybody from where everybody hits it. You say Tiger's great when he hits it long. But he's great when he hits it the same distance as the rest of us."

It's a notion that should leave the likes of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia quivering in their golf spikes.

Though this may be the most drastic single tournament maneuver Woods has attempted, it is hardly the first time he's called an audible when it comes to his game. Tiger underwent massive swing changes with coach Butch Harmon after the Masters in '97, then retooled his form under the tutelage of Hank Haney earlier this decade. These serve as poignant reminders that the world's greatest player isn't averse to refinement, that malleability is a foremost concern.

Allowance of reconstruction is what separates great athletes from the invincible. Tiger Woods changed his stripes this week, and in the process became a British Open champion once again.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com