Six of the last eight men’s major championships have been won by golfers in their 20s – Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day among them – and yet these young stars are only on the entrance ramp toward achieving what Woods has over a couple of decades.
Tiger didn’t just transform potential into accomplishment, he kept building stories on top of it, a skyscraper of success. Seventy-nine PGA Tour victories, second only to Snead’s 82. Fourteen professional majors, second only to Nicklaus’ 18. In the heart of his career, an 11-season stretch from 1999 through 2009, Woods won 64 times, a total that would tie him for fourth with Hogan on the all-time PGA Tour victory list. Of course, the last year of that stretch was marked by shock and surprise, as Woods blew a 54-hole lead in a major championship for the first time in his career, losing to Y.E. Yang in the PGA at Hazeltine, and then three months later was involved in the car accident outside his Orlando home that began the public unraveling of his carefully crafted image.
Despite not winning a tournament in four of the last six seasons – a period marked by several long absences from competition following the turmoil in his personal life and numerous health woes – Woods has still won almost a quarter of the tournaments he has ever played and has top-10 finishes in more than half. Like Nicklaus, whose peers marveled at his ability to never hit a careless shot, Woods rarely let an off day careen toward awful. The effort required to keep a 73 from turning into a 77 on a Thursday when the mind or body is misfiring, will never get the attention that showy shots on a winning Sunday will, but Woods has had that type of relentlessness in abundance since he was a teenager.
Woods was a skinny 15-year-old in 1991 when he became the youngest golfer to win the U.S. Junior Amateur, a record he held until Jim Liu won at 14 in 2010. He displayed his grit in the final at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando against Brad Zwetschke, who surged to a 3-up lead after six holes. Woods rallied to lead by 1 up going to No. 18, where he hooked a shot out of bounds and lost the hole. But Woods won on the 19th hole for the first of an unmatched three consecutive victories in the championship that were followed by another USGA first: three straight triumphs in the U.S. Amateur.
In each of those victories, Woods trailed in the final match. Against Trip Kuehne at TPC Sawgrass in 1994, Tiger rallied from 5 down. He was 3 down to Buddy Marucci during the first 18 at Newport (R.I.) Country Club in 1995. And at Oregon’s Pumpkin Ridge in 1996, Woods trailed Steve Scott by five holes during a dramatic match, one of the most entertaining and exciting in the championship’s long history, before winning on the 38th hole. Scott was 2 up going to the 34th hole, but Woods birdied from 8 feet to trim the deficit. On the next hole, Woods pulled off the kind of big-moment shot – a curling, 35-foot birdie putt to square the match – that would become his trademark. Woods’ pursuit of the unprecedented triple attracted the Amateur’s biggest gallery since Jones wrapped up the 1930 Grand Slam in the U.S. Amateur at Merion. (It is fitting that Jones and Woods, phenoms who energized different eras in similar ways, share the mark for most USGA success.)
A few days after winning a USGA championship for the sixth straight year, Woods showed up at the Greater Milwaukee Open – “Hello, world” – for his professional debut, lucrative endorsement contracts in tow, trying to secure a Tour card for 1997 in the limited starts he would receive through sponsor exemptions. He was about 4 months from turning 21, and despite his amateur successes there was still a measure of skepticism among some of the hardened Tour pros he was now trying to beat. Their doubts – and his own, if he had any – were soon gone. Woods didn’t contend in Wisconsin, but won twice in October, the Las Vegas Invitational and Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic, and finished 24th on the PGA Tour money list in just eight events. Jordan Spieth was 3 years old. Rory McIlroy was 7. Jason Day was about to turn 9.
As those boys grew up, they saw Woods win the 1997 Masters by 12 shots. They watched him capture an unprecedented four consecutive professional major championships in 2000-01, the “Tiger Slam,” which began with an overwhelming 15-stroke victory in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. They saw Woods win and win and win, his many victories full of eye-candy shots: a towering approach over water from a fairway bunker in Canada; a chip that took its sweet time before dropping in Georgia; a putt across the final green to win in Orlando, an unlikely stroke if it had been anybody but Tiger. He seemed to know a secret code for executing crucial shots, each more memorable than the last, a “SportsCenter” staple as sure as alley-oops and last-lap crashes.
As Tiger turns 40, not only do my thoughts return to the first tournament he played as a professional and all the hours I’ve spent watching him play in the two decades since. I remember when I met him in the fall of 1991, a couple of months before his 16th birthday. I visited him at home in California to write a magazine profile of this kid who people had been talking about since he took his little golf clubs on “The Mike Douglas Show” and had a putting contest with Bob Hope when he was 2.
Supple and skinny but golf-strong, already 6 feet but not even 140 pounds, he was good then and knew he was going to get better. All his talent and effort, all the victories in junior competition and all the you-can-do-it nurturing from his parents, Earl and Kultida, had already lined his golf future with the kind of potential seldom seen in the game. Earlier that year, after winning his first U.S. Junior, Woods had told The New York Times, “I want to become the Michael Jordan of golf.” Jordan had just led the Chicago Bulls to the first of six NBA titles in the 1990s – there would be two three-peats with a brief Jordan retirement in between – and was lighting up the league with play as driven as it was high-flying.
“I want to be the best golfer ever,” Woods told me that October weekend. “I don’t know whether I’ll achieve it or not, but it’s a helluva goal. I think I’d be more worried if I set too low a goal and achieved it too easily.”