It didn’t feel as if history was about to be made on a warm autumn day in Las Vegas. It was 1996, and I was covering the Las Vegas Invitational for Sports Illustrated, an assignment I was thrown into at the last second when another staff member quit his job mid-tournament.
That’s why I walked inside the ropes that weekend and enjoyed a front-row seat when Tiger Woods won his first PGA Tour title. He beat Davis Love III in a playoff when, frankly, Love made a mistake and semi-handed it to Woods. That’s the nature of golf, though.
My lead was something about how golf, as we knew it, was over. I was right about Woods, but honestly, I had no idea how right I would be.
It didn’t hit me until I flew home from Atlanta on Monday, the day after Woods won the Tour Championship, that I was there for No. 1 and for No. 80. I doubt if many other media members can say that because the Las Vegas event was lightly covered.
Eighty victories on the PGA Tour? The best player of his era? If you compare the actual games of Woods and Jack Nicklaus, allowing for the changes in equipment, Woods is the superior golfer. He had – or maybe still has – the best short game in golf. His secret of golf when he was in his prime was the fact that he just didn’t – wouldn’t – make bogeys. When you have a clean scorecard, you never shoot a bad score.
Nicklaus drove it straighter, no doubt, but he never lived and thrived off his short game the way Woods does. Nicklaus’ wedge play cost him titles, even majors. See the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion, which Lee Trevino won after Nicklaus chunked several wedge shots and, in the playoff, left at least one bunker shot in the sand. See the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977. How did Tom Watson take the lead on the 71st hole? With a two-putt birdie on the par-5 hole while Nicklaus failed to get up and down for birdie, missing a 4-foot putt.
Nicklaus holds the record for major championships, however, with 18. Woods is at 14. As long as those positions stay the same, backers of Woods can claim that he is the GOAT – greatest of all time – but Nicklaus backers will remind them that Jack has the greatest record of all time. Let’s call it a draw.
Back to Atlanta. Unlike Las Vegas, where it was dusty and dirty walking along the fairway edges, often in the desert, the Tour Championship at East Lake felt like history was going to be made. Woods hasn’t come through to win every time he’s had a chance, but to borrow NBC announcer Gary Koch’s famous line from the 2001 Players, he’s “better than most.”
History was assured and the Tour Championship was won in Saturday’s third round when Woods birdied six of the first seven holes. When he walked in a nice birdie putt on the opening hole Sunday, the hairs on my arms stood up. The hairs on my head would have, too, if there were any. I jokingly tweeted that I was on 53 watch at the time. The main thing was, that whole week was the best Woods looked going back to that 2008 U.S. Open playoff victory against Rocco Mediate. Sure, Woods had some nice triumphs in succeeding years, and a lot of titles after he came back from reconstructive knee surgery, but he never was the same as That Guy Before.
I’ve watched 20-plus years of Woods and know this much: Dismiss him at your own risk. When he made the turn at Carnoustie in July and held the British Open lead in the final round, I thought, This is it. He didn’t win, primarily because he still didn’t have a handle on his driver. The rest of his game – especially the wedge play around the greens – looked like the Tiger of old.
The same goes for the PGA Championship at Bellerive. Woods kept making birdies in the final round, young Brooks Koepka was starting to struggle and it looked as if the new generation of golfers was about to get a taste of vintage Woods. Koepka didn’t falter, however, and held off Woods to pick up his third major title in less than two years.
The Tour Championship was a glorious finish, with fans dashing madly behind Woods up the final fairway, a curious sight because many of them were holding up cellphones as they ran to record a piece of the history that was about to happen.
We have Francesco Molinari and Koepka to thank for the Atlanta moment. Had Woods somehow won at Carnoustie or at Bellerive or both, it would’ve been incredible and certainly have reignited the fuse for his chase to 18 major championships. However, it would have robbed us of seeing Woods play his ball around East Lake like a grandmaster strategically moving pieces around a chessboard, grind out pars and get choked up and teary-eyed after the victory.
Before this year, we assumed that Woods was done playing competitive golf due to back problems that made it painful for him to sit, stand, lie down or pretty much do anything. He assumed that he was done, too. To get a second chance at golf, and at history, was something that humbled Woods. That adversity, plus being a father to two children, made him a better person at 42. A better golfer, too? That doesn’t matter. Even if the Tour Championship were to be his last victory – and nobody in this republic believes that for a second – it still wouldn’t matter. Tiger’s Takedown at East Lake is a week to remember.
This week’s Ryder Cup almost feels like a victory lap for Woods. It won’t feel that way if the American team gets beat, of course, and that’s a strong possibility because Europe’s side is every bit as good as Team USA and it has a serious home-course advantage. The Americans haven’t won a Ryder Cup east of the Atlantic since 1993, when Paul Azinger was still a mop-haired youngster and Sergio Garcia was barely even a teenager. You’re sure to hear that 25-year U.S. drought mentioned about, oh, every 12 minutes on this week’s telecasts.
That’s all right. It is a matter of record. This week’s Ryder Cup, in a weird way, may turn out to be all about Tiger Woods. Not in the all-Tiger, all-the-time way the media breathlessly have covered him since he burst into pro golf with his oh-so-spontaneous-but-actually-oh-so-scripted, “Hello, world” moment.
Woods is riding on a high from Atlanta. It was his first victory in five years. It was No. 80, bringing him closer to Sam Snead’s mark of 82 and, pretty obviously, Woods is still keeping score on that.
This week in France is a chance for him – and for his teammate friends – to rewrite his Ryder Cup legacy, really the only blotch on his resume. Twenty-two years in pro golf and the game’s best player, head and shoulders above the rest, has played on one Ryder Cup winning side? That’s unimaginable. That’s in the same realm as Baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks never playing in a World Series.
It takes a team. At 42, Woods is older, wiser and more real than he’s ever been. No matter what happens in France, he will cherish the week and his teammates more than he ever has before.
As for what will happen, you already know that. Woods will do what he always does, one way or another.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle