Stories You Should Know: Tiger Woods

This is the final in our 5-part look at who is the Greatest Golfer of All Time. Included in the running for the Greatest is Jack Nicklaus, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.

The Case for Tiger Woods

It’s very difficult to write a dispassionate article about Tiger Woods. The modern sports media are such sycophants towards Woods, that young sports fans have no way of putting his career in proper perspective. There are not many golf fans who are neutral towards Tiger. Some, like the modern sports media, think he’s a great example to us all, that his record is second to none, and talk about him constantly. There are others, not media types, who have nothing good to say about him, either professionally or personally. Then there’s a third group that respects his accomplishments, but don’t root for him (we at A Sip of Sports are in the third category). He’s one of the six included in our series attempting to find the Greatest Golfer of All Time, so he’s obviously in the conversation, but he is also not an obvious #1. 

Eldrick Tont Woods was born in Cypress, California on December 30th, 1975. His dad, Earl, was a Vietnam Veteran who met Tiger’s mother, Kultida, while stationed in Thailand in 1968. Tiger is their only child, but Tiger has three half-siblings from Earl Woods’ previous marriage. 

Earl introduce golf to his son before Tiger’s second birthday. He famously appeared on the Mike Douglas Show in 1978, when he was only two, to hit golf balls alongside Bob Hope. Tiger’s junior accomplishments were sensational, better than Jack Nicklaus’. It culminated with him winning three straight U.S. Amateur Championships beginning in 1994. He attended Stanford University for two years where he won the NCAA Individual title at age 20. He turned professional that summer, signing lucrative endorsement contracts with both Nike and Titlest. He won three PGA Tour events in the second half of the season. Sports Illustrated name him Sportsman of the Year (go figure?).

In 1997, at age 21,  he blew away the field at Augusta, winning the Masters by a record 12 shots, and breaking the 72 hole scoring record at 18 under, 270. Woods won two more tournaments in 1997, one in 1998, then eight, including his second Major, the PGA, in 1999. He then had what might be the best year ever for a golfer in 2000. 

Tiger won four times early in the season, but finished a disappointing 5th at Masters. He entered the United States Open at Pebble Beach as the clear favorite. The sceptics opined that he was great in regular Tour events, but he struggled in Majors. Tiger Woods obliterated the field in the most dominant performance in the history of golf. He shot 272, 15 strokes better than any other player in the field. It was the largest margin of victory ever in a Major, besting Young Tom Morris’ previous record of 12 strokes at the (British) Open in 1870! 

Woods had another overwhelming victory at St. Andrews one month later, winning his first (British) Open by 8 strokes at the Old Course, and becoming the youngest person to complete the career Grand Slam. Two of the greatest courses in the world, and two blow out triumphs. He closed the Major season with a thrilling playoff win at The PGA, making Tiger Woods only the second golfer to win three Professional Majors in the same calendar year (Ben Hogan, 1953). He would complete the year with 9 Tour wins and 3 Majors. He again won Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, the only person to be so honored twice (this one was legitimate). 

 When Tiger opened the 2001 Major Championship season with a two stroke victory at the Masters, he became the only player to ever hold all four Major Professional Titles at the same time. 

Tiger would win eight more Majors and 42 more Tour events before his world came crashing down on him in 2009. A car crash, a one iron and scandal rocked his world. It ended with a  messy divorce, and revelations about his personal life that destroyed his reputation. He would never again be the same golfer.

He’s had several  comebacks since. In 2012 he would notch his 72nd career PGA Tour win, and his first since the scandal broke in 2009. He would win 5 times in 2013, recapturing his position as the #1 Golfer in the World, but none of the wins were in a Major. Injuries then derailed him, especially injuries to his back. He was stuck on 79 career PGA Tour wins (3 behind Sam Sneed) until capturing the final event in the 2018 season at the Tour Championship. He then thrilled his fans, and the sports media (one and the same) by winning the Masters in 2019.

He’ll be 44 in December and still battling injuries, so how much longer he can be competitive is always an issue. In a previous article we made it pretty clear that his chances of passing Nicklaus’ record of 18 Majors is almost 0%, but we still think he has about a 50% chance of passing Sneed’s record of 82 career wins on the PGA Tour. We will judge him solely on what he has done up to this point. So, where do the sum of his accomplishments place him on the all time list?

The modern media lists Tiger either first or second, with only Jack Nicklaus as a rival. We don’t think it’s that clear cut. Take Harry Vardon for example; Vardon played in only 34 Majors (31 British and 3 U.S. Opens). These were the only Majors available to him. His record in those events are:

7 wins, 13 top twos, 18 top fives, 23 top tens.

Tigers record in the two Opens are:

6 wins, 8 top twos, 11 top fives, 18 top tens.

Just for clarity we’ll list Bobby Jones’ and Jack Nicklaus’ record in the two Opens:

Jones:

7 wins, 11 top twos, 12 top fives, 13 top tens.

Nicklaus: 

7 wins, 19 top twos, 27 top fives, 36 top tens.

It’s pretty obvious that Vardon’s record is better, so is Jack’s. Even Bobby Jones’ is a little better, even though Bobby only participated in 15 of them and quit playing competitive golf at 28. Tiger’s record in the two Open is better than Snead and Hogan, but that’s a little unfair to Ben and Sam, because due to the scheduling of the British, and World War II, the (British) Open wasn’t available to them for much of their careers. The question now is how much do we penalize Vardon, and Jones, and Snead, and Hogan, and Nicklaus for the competition they faced?

Is the era that Tiger dominated an advantage, or a disadvantage when comparing him to the other five? First, the scores Woods shot on the courses the others also played on, were much lower. Tiger won twice at St. Andrews. It just so happens that three of the others we’re considering also won the Open at The Old Course, and another had a second place finish there. Harry Vardon’s best finish at the Home of Golf was a 2nd place finish in 1900. He shot 317. Bobby Jones won there in 1927; his score, 285. Sam Snead’s only win in the event was in 1946. He shot 290 at St. Andrews. Jack Nicklaus won two of his three Open Championships there in 1970 and 1978. He used 283 and 281 strokes. Tiger’s two winning scores were 269 (2000) and 274 (2005). Woods’ scores were much lower than even Jack Nicklaus’.

Is that a fair indication that Tiger was the best of the lot. Well, here’s what we now know; Louis Oosthuizen won the Open in 2010 at 272, Zach Johnson won in a three way playoff there after finishing 72 holes at 273 five years later. Are they better than Nicklaus as well?

Tiger joins Sam, Ben, and Jack as a multiple winners of the Masters, which is played on the same course every year (Augusta National Golf Club). Sneed’s winning scores were 282 (won by 3) in 1949, and 286 (won in a playoff) in 1952. Hogan’s two Green Jackets came in 1951 (won by 2) at 280, and 1953 (won by 5) with the then record score of 274. Jack’s six wins came in 1963, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1975, and 1986. His winning scores were: 286 (won by 2), 271 (a new record low score, won by a then record 9 strokes), 288 (won in playoff), 286 (won by 3), 276 (won by 1), and 279 (won by 1). Tiger’s five victories were; 1997 (270, which broke Jack’s scoring record, won by 12), 2001 (272, won by 2), 2002 (276, won by 3), 2005 (276, won in playoff), and 2019 (275, won by 1). 

Again, Tiger’s scores are lower, but his record performance in 1997 was only one better than Nicklaus’ record performance in 1965. His 271 has since been tied by Jordan Spieth in 2015. Should Spieth be in the conversation for the Greatest of All Time?

As you can tell by the tone of the last paragraph, we don’t think the winning scores are that significant. Weather has an impact, but more significantly other factors come into play. Golf course maintenance for one. Today’s players rarely get a bad line in the fairway, and seldom get one in the sand traps. This was less true in Jones’, Snead’s and Hogan’s time, and not true at all when Vardon was winning. The biggest advantage modern players have is the rapid improvement of golf equipment. Between the new golf balls and the edge of technology clubs, players hit the ball longer and straighter just about every year. Ray Floyd said, when he was 53, that he was hitting his ball further than ever before. That was 1995, imagine how much better balls and clubs have gotten since then.   

The other item that appears to help Tiger’s case is the quality of the competition he was beating. The fields in Woods’ era are much deeper than any of the others, including Nicklaus’. The main reason for this is money. Purses are so high that good athletes now choose golf as a profession over more traditional sports, such as baseball, football, or basketball. Also, golf now draws players from around the world. During Harry Vardon’s time his chief rivals were concentrated in the British Isles, with the Americans coming on board after he was in his 40s. When Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan dominated golf there wasn’t much money to be earned. Hogan came very close to giving up the game in the late 1930s, because he couldn’t make a living at it. Now we have thousands who make a good living on many professional tours, and if you make either of the two major tours, the PGA or European, you are in the top 5% of all earners. Tigers depth of field is his best arguement that he is the Greatest of All Time. 

Let’s finish this article with a comparison of Tiger’s Major record against Snead and Hogan, and then Nicklaus. Due to the war, and the timing of the event, Snead and Hogan were pretty well locked out of The (British) Open throughout their careers. They were able to play the other three Major Championships yearly, except during World War II.

So let’s compare Tiger’s record in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA to the “Slammer” and the “Hawk”.

Tiger:  12 wins, 19 top twos, 27 top fives, 31 top tens

Sneed:  6 wins, 15 top twos, 26 top fives, 47 top tens

Hogan:  8 wins, 14 top twos, 21 top fives, 37 top tens  

Just to be fair to Sam and Ben, we have to note that due to World War II, they both missed 10 Major Championship opportunities because of cancellation of the events, or them being in uniform serving their country. Since they were both born in 1912 the years they missed were between the ages of 29 and 34. Tiger won six Majors between ages 29 and 34. Two of them were (British) Open Championships. 

Jack and Tiger are easy to match, since all four Majors were available throughout their careers. This is a comparison that Tiger loses badly:

Tiger: 15 wins, 22 top twos, 33 top fives, 41 top tens

Jack:  18 wins, 37 top twos, 55 top fives, 73 top tens

One last comparison relating to Tiger. Was the peak Tiger reached in 2000-2001 higher than any other golfer. It’s clearly higher than the peaks of Harry Vardon, Sam Sneed, and Jack Nicklaus. The competition is Bobby Jones in 1930 and Ben Hogan in 1953. 

From 1999-2001 Tiger won 22 PGA Tour events and 5 Majors.

In 2000 alone he won 3 of the 4 Majors and 9 PGA Tour Events.

Bobby Jones from 1929-1930 won all three of the Open (U.S. & British) Championships he participated in. He also won both the British and U.S. Amateurs in 1930. In fact he won all six tournaments he competed in that year.

When Ben Hogan came back from his car accident in 1950, he won 6 of the eight Majors he competed in between the 1950 U.S. Open, and the 1953 (British) Open Championship. In 1953, Ben only entered six tournaments. He won five, including the Masters, the U.S. Open and the (British) Open. He could not play the PGA that year because its schedule overlapped the British Open.

These are the three most dominant runs in Golf history. It’s very close.

The conclusion about Tiger’s placement on the All Time list is, how much extra credit does he get because of the depths of the fields he dominated. His total of 81 PGA Tour wins is his most impressive achievement. In the context of his time it is superior to Snead’s 82. As for his Major record, we’re not sure where he should rate. He definitely doesn’t overwhelm the others. 

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