News & Opinion

Tiger Woods lays siege to another decade in golf

Just as he did in the 1990s and 2000s on the PGA Tour, Woods steals show in the 2010s, on and off course

SEA ISLAND, Ga. – This week’s RSM Classic isn’t just the last PGA Tour stop of the calendar year. It’s the last official PGA Tour event of the decade.

(I hired a symphony orchestra to play the Olympic Games theme here to dramatize this grandiose moment, but something went wrong with my email tubes. Maybe you could hum your favorite Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass tune to set the proper historic mood.)

I know this is the last official PGA Tour event of the decade – with apologies to the upcoming Presidents Cup in Australia, which several of you might watch – because my fellow media types have been harping on it all week, asking every available player here what stood out to them about the period starting in 2010 and ending any minute now.

It’s a big question, slightly tougher than our usual hard-hitting queries such as, “What did you hit in at 15?” Or, “You gonna eat that pickle?”

I heard some of the answers, and you’ll never believe what they singled out about our favorite current decade. Well, maybe you will.

Tiger Woods.

2013 The Northwestern Mutual World Challenge :  Practice Round
Tiger Woods shows his lighter side, but for more than 23 years he has sunk his teeth into opponents on the PGA Tour, extracting 82 victories and an amazing list of all-time hits.

That’s shocking because Woods also was the focal point of the previous two decades, which weren’t half-bad, by the way. One athlete has been the story of three consecutive decades? I don’t think even Richard Petty or Dick Weber did that. (If you don’t know those names, don’t worry. It means you’re not on Medicare yet.)

So, we’re still in a rut and we haven’t kicked our Tiger habit. Or maybe he won’t let us.

The 1990s understandably was Woods’ decade. He got a late start because he didn’t turn pro until 1996 but made up for that by changing golf – see 1997 Masters for further details. Those changes include forcing his competitors, and just about every Tour player except John Daly and Tim Herron, to hit the fitness van hard and start lifting weights. They also included attitude-flavored quotes such as, “Second place sucks.”

Greg Norman was a big deal in the ’90s. So were Nick Faldo, Fred Couples and even Daly. Five minutes after the ’97 Masters ended, they stepped into a permanent eclipse as Woods blotted out the sun. (In modern terminology for you millennials, he blocked them on Twitter.)

TigerMania unrolled longer, louder and unabated in the 2000s. Did anyone else even play pro golf? Besides 2009 PGA champ Y.E. Yang, I mean?

Woods banged out four major championships in a row and 12 of his 15 majors during this decade. He won the U.S. Open in 2008 in dramatic fashion, not so much because he beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff that went 19 holes but because he played all week on micro-fractures in his left leg that had him grimacing and bending over in pain. It was great TV, and great TV equals It Must Be Important.

He finished off the decade with the scandal that went global following his fire-hydrant incident, the discovery of his previously unknown sexcapades and his subsequent rise as the No. 1 paparazzi photo target.

I don’t mean to be flippant (not here, anyway), but his disappearance for those next three months ranks among his most remarkable achievements. Those paparazzi snipers are despicable, but they’re good at what they do. It’s one of the main reasons I chose not to become a global celebrity.

Nobody ever threw a blanket over a whole decade the way Woods covered the 2000s. Not Hogan; not Nicklaus; not Palmer; not even the New York Yankees.

After the hydrant, I did not expect Woods to be the story of the 2010s in golf. I predicted that after enough time elapsed, he would become a sympathetic comeback story. Incredibly, he won three times in 2012 and five more times the next year. Then he was intermittently sidelined by injuries for most of the next five years. He became a comeback story that kept recycling itself with each new setback.

His back issues looked like a career-ender. Watching him gingerly get in and out of his cart as an assistant captain during the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine was sad. You hate to see anyone that young debilitated, especially the greatest golfer of the modern era.

You know the rest. The back fusion worked far beyond what anyone – even Woods – imagined, and he came back and won last year’s Tour Championship, this year’s Masters and the recent inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan to tie Sam Snead’s all-time victory mark.

Does that make him golf’s story arc of this decade? Before I heard the Tour players go with Woods, I would’ve answered, No. Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka racked up four major championships in this decade – that’s three more than Woods, if you’re counting. They had memorable moments. McIlroy became Europe’s most glamorous and successful player. Koepka became America’s most efficient major-slayer and new No. 1, all in the past three years.

If Dustin Johnson were an amusement-park attraction, he would’ve been Dusty’s Wild Ride. He was up and down and up and down, majestically and not-so-majestically, for the whole 10 years. Long-time Woods rival Phil Mickelson kept popping up like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Rickie Fowler invented the color orange. And Jordan Spieth’s 2015 season, when he chased the Grand Slam to the 72nd hole of the British Open at St. Andrews, was the most compelling thing I saw.

Oh, right. Spieth’s run was the most compelling event until Woods had what may or may not be his Jack Nicklaus-in-’86 moment at Augusta last April. It was spellbinding to see the Tiger of old think his way around the back nine like a crafty veteran to seal another green jacket, and even better to witness his display of emotion afterward like we’d never seen.

The other aforementioned major champs were pretty good. I’m sure they’re not done winning majors, but none of them captured our imaginations (in good ways and bad) the way Woods did, and still does. He might not be done winning majors, either, even as we enter the new captaining phase of his career at next month’s Presidents Cup.

Maybe my answer would be different if McIlroy had won a major title and completed his career Grand Slam, or if Mickelson finally had gotten his U.S. Open miracle or if Spieth had continued his winning spree.

They didn’t, so I guess I have to concede that this decade is/was Woods’, too.

“The best part about it for me, being two months younger than Tiger, is the fact that these young guys get to have a taste of what we had forever,” said two-time major champion Zach Johnson. “I mean, I’m just glad they’re getting a glimpse of what we had to go through.”

We’ve enjoyed three decades of Tiger. Will we have four? That will be up to him, or some other player who’s ready to command a decade. Envision your 10-year plan now, folks, and good luck.