In tying Sam Snead for PGA Tour’s all-time victory total, Tiger Woods adds to his legacy, but it hardly was his biggest feat in golf
The most amazing thing about Tiger Woods is that he actually exists. Not so much as a member of the human race, but a dominant performer who trampled all comers for more than a decade, then succumbed to various issues before returning almost a decade later to find greatness again. Nobody does that in professional sports. Only a select few ever change the game in their prime – baseball’s Babe Ruth, basketball’s Wilt Chamberlain and hockey’s Wayne Gretzky come to mind – but a successful encore after such a lengthy hiatus?
Ted Williams lost almost five full baseball seasons to active military service but not an ounce of his prowess at the plate, and by all accounts, the Splendid Splinter batted .400 as a fighter pilot, too. Muhammad Ali forfeited four years of his prime by refusing to go to Vietnam, then rebuilt his career to a level that made him an American icon. From there, the cupboard goes bare. Pro golf lets you play until you’re old and gray, but you still have to win to remain relevant, and since tying Sam Snead’s PGA Tour victory mark two weeks ago in Japan, Woods has reclaimed his box seat in the center of the universe.
If we knew what was next, we couldn’t call it the future, so we’ll have to suffice with his glorious past. Here is one man’s look at Woods’ 10 greatest golfing achievements, a list comprised with an equal appreciation for the difficulty of the task and its historical significance. Tiger’s Greatest Hits. Dominance quantified.
10. Piling up 15 World Golf Championships among the first 27 played, and winning a WGC in 11 consecutive years – Not that the WGC shingle has a lot of street cred, but the tournaments always have drawn elite fields, which gave Woods more opportunities to exercise his superiority and demoralize his foes. A lot of very good players (Jim Furyk, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia) never won a WGC. Eldrick has 18 of these babies, which he’d gladly trade for five majors, but there’s still a bit of sand in the top half of the hourglass.
9. Playing 52 straight rounds without shooting over par – It’s one of those PGA Tour records that gets lost in the avalanche. The stretch began at the Byron Nelson Classic in May 2000 and lasted until Phoenix in January 2001, meaning Woods tackled three majors during the streak (he won all three). It led to the lowest single-season scoring average (67.79) in Tour history, an utterly remarkable number.
8. Winning his fifth Masters 22 years after the first – There was a lot to like about Woods’ first post-hydrant major title, his first anywhere in almost 11 years. Perseverance, mental toughness and a fair amount of luck in April 2019 ended his drought at Augusta National, which dated to 2005, and officially validated a comeback that needed a centerpiece. For all the hyperbole that shrouded his return, Woods revealed the competitive warrior so many had hoped to see and proved to an entire generation of young golfers that greatness is eternal.
7. Winning his first Masters by 12 shots – He was just a skinny kid himself back then. Nobody remembers that Woods made the turn in 40 during that opening round in 1997, or that a lot of people snickered, which only makes his 12-shot victory all the more mind-boggling. Young Eldrick decimated the old ballyard. He set a scoring record (270) that still stands, which convinced the greenjackets to toughen up Augusta National so it could keep pace with the modern game. They called it Tigerproofing. It didn’t work.
6. Ten major titles before his 30th birthday – Woods is the only man to accomplish this feat; Jack Nicklaus (seven) had gone 2½ years without a major when he turned 30 in January 1970. Age is just a number, which makes this a milestone, not a record, but the mere idea of reaching double digits in your 20s was inconceivable before Woods did it. His sheer brilliance and ability to perform under intense pressure was unprecedented, and that in itself strengthens the case that he’s the greatest player ever.
5. Winning 14 consecutive majors after holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead – Mathematically, this is damn near impossible. About half of the third-round leaders on the PGA Tour go on to win that week, so seven of 14 would be pretty good. Ten of 14 would be outstanding. Twelve would be outrageous. Fourteen? Really? Anyone who thinks Woods didn’t intimidate opponents in his heyday is simply ignoring the precept of reality. Bob May (2000 PGA) is the only guy who even forced Tiger into a playoff over that stretch. More often than not, he’d wrapped things up by the 16th tee.
4. Going more than seven years without missing a cut – This makes Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak look like a couple of singles on an August afternoon. From February 1998 to May 2005, Woods qualified for the weekend at 142 consecutive tournaments. About 10 percent of those events didn’t have a cut, so the number should probably be around 125, but Bryon Nelson (113) and Nicklaus (105) also played in limited-field gatherings, so 142 is official. It’s also ridiculous, given that a very few PGA Tour pros go an entire season without packing their bags on a Friday.
3. Equaling Snead’s victory record – It takes a long time to win 82 golf tournaments, but if Woods hadn’t busted up his life in late 2009, he might have tied Snead years ago (“Gray area: Woods, Snead and 82*,” Nov. 3). From 1999 through ’09, he averaged nearly six victories per season. He won seven consecutive starts in 2006-07, six straight in 1999-2000 and five in a row in 2007-08. Only four of his contemporaries have made it to three. Look at it this way: Woods collected more first-place paychecks in those three streaks than Furyk has cashed in his entire career. That red shirt must work.
2. Winning 51 percent of his starts from the 2006 British Open through the end of the 2009 season – Six weeks after the death of his father Earl, Tiger returned to action at the 2006 U.S. Open and looked awful. He shot 12 over and missed the cut, then returned three weeks later and finished T-2 at the Western Open. To that point, Woods was having a mediocre season by his standards, leaving us no clue that he was about to embark on the most prolific stretch of his career: 23 wins in 45 events, four of them majors, which almost makes his back-to-back seconds at the Masters and runners-up at a U.S. Open and PGA look like failures.
Ten years ago this month, there was no reason to think Woods’ victory binge wouldn’t continue well into the new decade. The unraveling of his marriage changed everything, serving as the obvious point of demarcation between the finest golfer who ever lived and a man about to face some painful reality.
1. The Tiger Slam – My podcast partner, Jeff Rude, says that winning four straight majors over two different seasons is more difficult than a conventional Grand Slam, and he’s right. Imagine going to bed every night for eight months and having to sleep on the fact that you’re 72 holes away from the largest chunk of glory the game can muster. Imagine the repeated brawls between confidence and doubt, or the simple notion that you could slip on a wet spot in your kitchen and not even get the chance to pursue a fourth straight major title. Woods might have lost some sleep, but he didn’t slip. After claiming the first two legs of his personalized Slam by a combined 23 shots and surviving the remarkable sudden-death session with May, he cruised to triumph at the 2001 Masters with a closing 68, two shots ahead of David Duval, three better than Phil Mickelson.
The purists can call it what they want. I’m calling it the best thing Eldrick T. Woods has ever done.