Mycobacteria grow by inserting new cell wall material in discrete zones at the cell poles. This pattern implies that polar growth zones must be assembled de novo at each division, but the mechanisms that control the initiation of new pole growth are unknown. Here, we combine time-lapse optical and atomic force microscopy to measure single-cell pole growth in mycobacteria with nanometer-scale precision. We show that single-cell growth is biphasic due to a lag phase of variable duration before the new pole transitions from slow to fast growth. This transition and cell division are independent events. The difference between the lag and interdivision times determines the degree of single-cell growth asymmetry, which is high in fast-growing species and low in slow-growing species. We propose a biphasic growth model that is distinct from previous unipolar and bipolar models and resembles “new end take off” (NETO) dynamics of polar growth in fission yeast.