News & Opinion

Woods one-ups M.J. as Chicago’s GOAT

Many sports fans would assume that no athlete has won more championships in Chicago than basketball legend Michael Jordan

Many sports fans would assume that no athlete has won more championships in Chicago than basketball legend Michael Jordan.

Yes, basketball’s GOAT – greatest of all time – led the Chicago Bulls to championships in 1991, ’92 and ’93, took a couple of years off to play baseball, then returned to help the Bulls win three more Larry O’Brien trophies, in ’96, ’97 and ’98.

But there is one athlete who has won more titles in Chicago than M.J.: Tiger Woods.

Tiger Woods strolls triumphantly up the 18th fairway at the 1997 Western Open.

Tiger Woods strolls triumphantly up the 18th fairway at the 1997 Motorola Western Open.

Woods has won seven of his mind-boggling 81 professional tournaments in Chicago (8.6 percent), including two PGA Championships at Medinah, site of this week’s BMW Championship (tee times), and five Western Opens/BMWs at Cog Hill. Though both courses lie outside the city limits, they’re squarely in the middle of the Midwest’s most populous metropolitan area, of some 9.2 million residents.

“We’re spoiled in Chicago,” said John Kaczkowski, the Western Golf Association’s chief executive and a former tournament director of the Western Open. “We got to see Michael Jordan play 41 games a year in Chicago. A lot of PGA Tour cities never got to see Tiger Woods, and we got to see him every year.”

Woods began his reign as Chicago’s greatest champion at the 1997 Motorola Western Open, three months after he shocked the world by winning the Masters, his first major championship, by a preposterous 12 shots.

On Fourth of July weekend ’97, at Cog Hill’s No. 4 “Dubsdread” course, Woods won by three strokes. That’s not all, of course.

The tournament will be remembered for Woods’ triumphant walk up the 18th fairway as thousands of spectators spontaneously burst through the gallery ropes and fell in line behind golf’s new pied piper on his victory march.

It was a scene right out of the British Open, except for the unbridled all-American enthusiasm, the jumping and hollering crowds, and the absence of restrained British emotion.

It might even be when the word “iconic” was coined.

Woods won the Western at Cog Hill again in 1999 and returned a month later to win the PGA Championship at Medinah, edging 19-year-old Sergio Garcia by one shot.

Moreover, it was at the ’99 PGA that Woods would announce himself as a player for the ages. It came 2½ years after his first Masters victory after which he had embarked on a swing change with then-teacher Butch Harmon.

Medinah’s ’99 PGA truly was a jumping-off point for some of the greatest golf ever played. Woods would win nine times in 2000, including the year’s final three majors, before he added the 2001 Masters for the “Tiger Slam.”

It was at the ’99 PGA that a number of trained observers divined a budding rivalry between Woods, then 21, and Garcia, the precocious Spanish teen who scissors-kicked his way up the 16th fairway to watch his improbable banana-sliced recovery shot from the side of a tree trunk land on the green.

Twenty years later, the disease-stricken “Sergio tree” had been chopped down, Woods had won 13 more majors, and Garcia finally got one, the 2017 Masters. Score another one for the experts.

At the title-sponsor-free 100th Western Open at Cog Hill in 2003, Woods continued to bludgeon his competition – such as it was – shooting 21 under for a five-shot victory.

Woods’ second major championship in Chicago came at the 2006 PGA, again at Medinah. Going into the final round tied with Luke Donald, a former Northwestern star and Chicago-area resident, Woods promptly birdied No. 1 and converted 40-foot putts on Nos. 6 and 8 to take a four-shot lead. He cruised through the back nine almost as if it were a Wednesday pro-am.

In 2007, the Western became part of the FedEx Cup playoffs and was renamed the BMW Championship. Its field was reduced to 70 players from 156, and its date was pushed back to September.

The results were similar: Woods shot 22 under at Cog Hill and won by two.

Woods, whose first child, daughter Sam, was born just three months earlier, asked: “Where are all the kids?”

“Back in school,” he was informed by a helpful horde.

The children who normally followed Woods around Cog Hill, shouting, begging for his autograph and bringing fun and life to a great Chicago sporting event, were in class. Cog Hill was quiet.

After the 2007 BMW, Cog Hill owner Frank Jemsek brought in course architect Rees Jones to toughen up Dubsdread, hoping that the USGA would judge it to be a public course worthy of hosting a U.S. Open.

When the BMW returned to Cog in 2009, Woods established a post-renovation course record of 9-under 62 in Round 3, finished at 19 under and won by eight shots.

“After we made it harder, he broke his own course record,” said Jemsek, referring to Woods’ previous mark of 63, in the ’07 final round.

"I've always loved coming here,” Woods said before the 2012 Ryder Cup. “I enjoy playing in Chicago, and for some reason, I've just had a lot of success here. I don't know what it is. But I seem to be very, very comfortable here.”

The dominating performance in 2009 would be Woods’ last victory in Chicago. A few months later, his life was enveloped by a sex scandal amid revelations of serial infidelity and his body plagued with injury.

In recent years, the BMW has rotated outside of Chicago.

Woods made his most recent visit to Medinah as a member of the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team, which coughed up a 10-6 lead entering Sunday singles and lost to Europe. With an absence of his Chicago mojo, Woods went 0-3-1 for the week, losing three team matches with Steve Stricker. Woods last played in the Chicago area in 2013, when he tied for 11th at the BMW at Conway Farms. He has won seven of his 15 starts as a pro in Chicago and finished second twice.

Woods returned to Chicago this week amid uncertainty about his health. He withdrew before the second round of last week’s Northern Trust, the PGA Tour’s playoff opener, citing an oblique injury after a first-round 75. Still, Woods is only four months removed from a Masters victory, and he stands sixth in the Official World Golf Ranking. Will he build on his Chicago lead over the now-retired Jordan?

We can assume one guy who’ll be watching.

Barry Cronin, a former golf writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, is media director for the John Deere Classic and head of Cronin Communications. He lives in Park Ridge, Ill. Email: