If it’s major championship week, it must be time for another whirlwind round of Tiger Woods retrospectives.
Will Tiger break his five-year major drought and win his fourth US Open this week at Merion? Will he hit enough fairways to contend on the weekend? Will there be another rules incident like the one at the Masters?
If he does win, will this mark the greatest comeback in history?
And, with four wins in eight starts, is Tiger’s game better now than ever before?
Almost all of those questions are unanswerable. No one knows who is going to win a golf tournament before the first shot is struck. Tiger wasn’t supposed to win The Players Championship this year on a golf course he hates — TPC Sawgrass, where he won by two shots — and he was supposed to successfully defend at The Memorial, a tournament he has won five times, but where, this year, he barely made the cut and finished 65th out of 73 players who finished the weekend.
The “will he” or “won’t he” questions provide great fodder for talk shows and web chats, but they are, for the most part, meaningless once the competition begins.
But the last question of the bunch — Is Tiger better now than ever? — can, in fact, be answered like this: No way, not even close.
Those who did not see Tiger in 1999 and 2000 cannot fully appreciate what he did during that time frame or how he did it. But those of us who were there knew we were standing in the middle of history, and nothing that Tiger or anyone else has done in the dozen years since has changed that perspective.
Just look at the numbers: In the 19 months from June 1999 through December 2000, Tiger won 16 PGA Tour events in 30 starts including a stretch of six official victories in a row beginning with the WGC-NEC Invitational in August 1999 and going through the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February 2000. No player since Byron Nelson has won in more consecutive starts or won more tournaments in such a short period of time, and no one since Ben Hogan has had a higher winning percentage.
But it was Tiger’s three major championship victories in 2000 beginning at the US Open that remains unparalleled, not just in the record books but in the memories of all who were there.
Standing on the range at Pebble Beach for hours before the 2000 US Open, I watched Tiger hit one perfectly straight shot after another, shots that rocketed off the club face like no one else’s ever had and that landed in areas no had ever imagined possible. Seven months prior I had been one of the few journalists to make the trip to Valderrama, Spain, to watch Tiger win the WGC-American Express Championship. After he took the lead in the third round, I asked him how he had played one of the longer par-fives on the course.
“I hit a drive 340 up the right side,” he said, “That left 200 yards and I hit 7-iron to about 18 feet.”
“I’m sorry, Tiger, you hit what?” I asked, sure that I had misunderstood.
He stared at me for a moment before saying, “I hit 7-iron.”
“You hit 7-iron 200 yards uphill to 18 feet,” I said, this time with a tone of disbelief.
He didn’t appreciate my insinuation. “It wasn’t a very hard shot,” he said, ending the discussion.
I didn’t question him after that, especially after watching him eviscerate the best golfers in the world at Pebble Beach.
That week Ernie Els finished second with a score of 3-over par. Tiger shot 12-under and won the Open by 15 shots — the largest margin in major championship history.
“If I had played out of my mind I probably would have lost by five, six or seven shots,” Els said at the time. “It seems like we’re not playing in the same ballpark right now. He’s a phenomenal player, and that’s an understatement, probably. Everything I say about the guy would be an understatement. He just played a perfect US Open. He did nothing wrong. The guy is unbelievable. … If you put Old Tom Morris with Tiger Woods, Tiger would probably beat him by 80 shots.”
The next month at the British Open Championship in St. Andrews, Scotland, I found myself standing on the range again, mesmerized as Tiger hit one drive after another over the first “0” in the 300-yard sign. He worked the shots at will — drawing and fading them, hitting them high or low — but they all passed over the sign at the same spot. As his coach at the time, Butch Harmon, walked by on his way to see Tiger, I said: “Don’t waste your time. He might win this one by 20.”
Tiger shot 19-under, an Open Championship record, and won by six over David Duval, also a record.
But Tiger’s dominance could not be measured by numbers alone. He won by doing things no one had ever seen.
For instance, on the par-five fifth hole at St. Andrews during the final round, Duval hit a fine drive, one the gallery ahead acknowledged through a polite smattering of applause. Then Tiger hit, and the gasp from the spectators was audible from hundreds of yards away. While there was no official measurement of the shot at the time, I went back later and stepped it off. By my rough calculations, Tiger hit that tee shot 429 yards in the center of the fairway.
“I watched Ben Hogan play a lot of golf with my father,” Harmon told me years later. “And I can tell you without a doubt that no one has ever played the game the way Tiger Woods did during that stretch.”
By the time he won the PGA Championship in Louisville in August — a playoff victory over Bob May that is still considered one of the greatest major championship battles of all time — Tiger’s place in history was sealed. No matter what else he did, for that brief period of time, Tiger Woods was not just the greatest golfer who ever lived, but arguably the most dominant athlete ever.
In the 13 years since, not even Tiger has played the way Tiger did from the summer of 1999 through the end of 2000. Granted he’s won nine more majors and lost and regained the World No. 10 ranking twice, but he hasn’t crushed and demoralized the competition the way he did during his prime.
Will Tiger win his 15th major this week at Merion? Maybe, and I wouldn’t bet against him.
Will he dominate the game the way he did when he was at his peak? No way. Of that, you could be absolutely certain.