When he was 42, it was a very good year.
Tiger Woods and his surprising comeback lifted 2018 from pretty good to darn-near great, as far as men’s golf seasons go.
Sure, there were many memorable non-Tiger moments. Patrick Reed won a tense Masters over Rickie Fowler and charging Jordan Spieth. Brooks Koepka showed off his clutch gene at Shinnecock Hills. Phil Mickelson’s hockey-on-the-green shenanigans added a circus element to a U.S. Open we won’t soon forget.
Rory McIlroy captured the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Bubba Watson won three times. Justin Rose reached No. 1. Mickelson won at 48.
But, let’s be honest. A big reason why 2018 was unusually compelling was because Woods stepped all over it. He made a clutch long putt at the Valspar Championship’s 71st hole to get within a birdie of a playoff. He led at Bay Hill during the final round before pumping a drive out of bounds. He led the British Open at the turn in the final round but couldn’t keep up with eventual winner Francesco Molinari. Woods chased Koepka to the bitter end at the PGA Championship and then won the Tour Championship, marching up East Lake’s finishing hole with the modern equivalent of Arnie’s Army following right behind in the year’s most unforgettable scene.
Yes, it was a very good year. Was it the best of this century? Well, measuring any golf year is subjective. I tend to consider majors more than anything else, but your list is likely to differ. While 2018 isn’t my No. 1 choice, it does rank among my Top Ten Best Golf Years in the 2000s.
10. 2017: Sergio Garcia scored his first major title, and it shockingly came at the Masters, a tournament that often left him grumbling. Koepka won a messy U.S. Open at which rain and Erin Hills left many unimpressed. Spieth famously played a stroke from the practice ground in the final round of the British Open, lost the lead, then bounced back with a scintillating string of birdies and an eagle to top Matt Kuchar at Royal Birkdale. At the PGA, Justin Thomas showed his game is made for majors. Spieth owned the year’s other biggest highlight, too, with a holed bunker shot to win a playoff in Hartford and a joyous-but-awkward bump with caddie Michael Greller.
9. 2013: This was a satisfying year. Nice guy Adam Scott won the Masters in a playoff, sinking a dramatic putt on the second extra hole in the rainy twilight to become the first Aussie (sorry about that, Greg Norman) to win the green jacket. Nice guy Rose outdueled Mickelson in a throwback Open played at Merion. Though he had a weak record in past British Opens, Mickelson astonished golf fans by snagging the Claret Jug at Muirfield, a popular victory. Underrated Jason Dufner posted a 63 as he grabbed the PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
8. 2002: Woods had the Grand Slam in his sights, having won the Masters and U.S. Open while looking unbeatable. He was two strokes behind leader Ernie Els at the British Open after two rounds at Muirfield. A freakish squall hit not long before Woods teed off in the third round and he limped home with a windblown 81 while Els shot a stellar 72 and pulled away. Did that storm mortally wound Woods’ previously unbeatable mojo? It’s hard to say, but at Hazeltine in the PGA Championship, wise-cracking Rich Beem’s best golf was good enough to outlast Woods.
7. 2018: Koepka established himself as a force to be reckoned with by winning two more majors. Reed joined an elite club of Masters winners; Francesco Molinari was the star of Carnoustie and, later, the Ryder Cup; and Woods returned to golf with an impressive encore. The only thing missing was Spieth, who was winless.
6. 2009: This was the Year That Went Wrong, at least from a fan’s viewpoint. Angel Cabrera won the Masters in a playoff instead of popular 48-year-old Kentuckian Kenny Perry. Mickelson had another great chance to grab his elusive U.S. Open, but his putter let him down. David Duval also was in the running, but Lucas Glover, winning for only the second time, took it all at Bethpage Black. Scotland was practically in mourning when 59-year-old Tom Watson bogeyed the final hole and ended his unprecedented challenge run with a bad playoff beat-down to Stewart Cink in the British Open at Turnberry. Some golf historians believe the official Tiger Woods Era ended at Hazeltine when Y.E. Yang outplayed Woods in the final round to capture the PGA.
5. 2006: Mickelson tagged himself “such an idiot” after fumbling away the U.S. Open on Winged Foot’s final hole in what remains a memorable Open of errors. Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington also finished badly and helped hand the trophy to Geoff Ogilvy. It was still a good year for Mickelson, who won his second Masters. Woods scored the most emotional victory of his career when he won at Royal Liverpool, his first major title following the death of his father, Earl, and cried on the shoulder of his caddie, Steve Williams. Then Woods won another PGA, at Medinah.
4. 2004: Mickelson lamented that he was “five swings away” from a Grand Slam. It wasn’t total hyperbole. For starters, he finally got the oh-for-the-majors monkey off his back by holing a dramatic 18-foot birdie putt on the Masters’ 72nd hole. His electrifying final-round charge at Shinnecock Hills was stopped by a bunker shot and a three-putt on the 71st hole; and late bogeys kept him out of playoffs at the British Open (Todd Hamilton won) and PGA (Vijay Singh won). Apply those five swings in the right places for Mickelson and, yes, a Grand Slam theoretically was within sight.
3. 2015: Nobody saw this coming. Spieth asserted himself as the King of Golf by winning the Masters and U.S. Open (with an assist from Dustin Johnson’s final-hole three-putt at Chambers Bay) and chasing the Grand Slam all the way to the 72nd hole at the Old Course. When Spieth drained a 30-footer for birdie to share the lead Sunday, it felt like destiny calling, but it turned into a wrong number after he pulled drives on the last two holes, finished bogey-par and missed a playoff won by Zach Johnson. Jason Day, who also left St. Andrews disappointed, steamrolled the record books by winning the PGA at Whistling Straits at 20 under. Day went on a memorable spree after his PGA victory, too. New stars were minted and confirmed.
2. 2001: You’ll be telling your grandkids about the Tiger Slam, which Woods completed with a Masters victory. A debate raged over whether winning four straight majors over two seasons truly was a Grand Slam. Thus, an alternative moniker, Tiger Slam, was born. Forget the name; just consider yourself lucky to have witnessed it, because you won’t see its like again. There were other highlights, too. Duval finally got his major, a British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and David Toms enjoyed his layup-for-birdie moment to beat Mickelson at the PGA.
1. 2000: Tigermania was in full frenzy. All Woods did was win nine times, including the last three majors (at Pebble Beach, the Old Course and Valhalla) with record-setting scores. The one that got away was the Masters, when Singh suddenly got a handle on putting Augusta National’s treacherous greens, an accomplishment for which he would have gotten more credit if, like everyone else in this decade, he hadn’t been overshadowed by you-know-who.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle