HARTFORD, Conn. – I feel extremely fortunate to have covered golf in the Golden Age of the two greatest players in history.
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have separated themselves from a plethora of terrific golfers, on and off the course, many of whom I have had the opportunity to watch and interview in person. Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Billy Casper, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Walter Hagen, Phil Mickelson, Gene Sarazen, Seve Ballesteros, Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright, Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez all made noteworthy marks on the game, though “The King” is the most revered, beloved and important player in history.
As Trevino once said, “There’s a reason they call Mr. Palmer ‘The King’ ”
Nicklaus began his climb to immortality in the late 1950s and capped his PGA Tour career with perhaps the most compelling victory in history in the 1986 Masters, shooting a 6-under-par 30 on the back nine to overtake several of the game’s best at the time and become the oldest to don a green jacket at 46 years old. It was his 73rd career victory, second to Snead’s 82, and extended his record for major championship titles to 18.
Woods joined Snead on the all-time victory mountaintop Sunday when he overcame three bogeys to start The ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, the first PGA Tour event in Japan, to lead wire-to-wire, shooting 19-under 261 to best favorite son Hideki Matsuyama by three strokes and surpass $120 million in career earnings. Woods also tied the 82 wins of LPGA Hall of Famer Mickey Wright but is still six shy of the all-time pro record of Whitworth, who lived in Connecticut for awhile as she notched victories from 1962 to 1985, the same span of time that Woods has been on the PGA Tour.
Sunday’s win moved Woods to sixth in the world rankings, and he’s the fourth-highest American behind Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas. Countries in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are capped at two players, but there’s a provision to allow up to four from the same country if all are ranked into the top 15 in the world. But the Official World Golf Rankings utilize a two-year rolling points system that currently runs back to October 2017, while points for the official Olympic rankings only began accruing in July 2018.
Though the two rankings systems will grow more closely aligned as the Olympics approach, Woods is currently fifth and on the outside looking in. Koepka and Thomas would be the top two Americans, with Patrick Cantlay, now one spot behind Woods in the world rankings, as the third U.S. player and Johnson rounding out the foursome for Tokyo. The cutoff for earning points toward Olympic qualification will be June 22, 2020, the day after the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., that precedes the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
“Well, it’s a big number,” Woods said of No. 82, which he notched thanks to a closing 3-under-par 67 for a 72-hole total of 19-under 261, tying his third-lowest score on the PGA Tour after not competing for nine weeks. “It’s about consistency and doing it for a long period of time. Physically, I can’t do any of the things I used to do. That’s just the way it is. Four back surgeries and my body just can’t do what it used to do, but I can certainly think my way around the golf course and manage my game.
“The knee didn’t allow me to rotate (before a fifth surgery in August), and because of that, it put more stress on my lower back and hip. Now I’m able to clear a little bit better, I feel better, I’m able to hit shots that I know I can hit, and this week was a good sign for the future. I’m very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had so far, and it’s ironic that I won in Japan because I’ve always been a global player, so this is pretty cool.”
Rory McIlroy, the Tour Championship winner and FedExCup champion in August, watched the final minutes Sunday on television after he birdied the last two holes to tie for third at 13-under 267.
“It’s amazing what he keeps doing with the comebacks – the Tour Championship, the Masters, here, it’s incredible,” said McIlroy, who has already committed to the 2020 Travelers Championship on June 25-28. “He does things that people really can’t comprehend, and no one can really understand apart from himself. And I think that’s the reason he does these things because he thinks and dreams of things that other people don’t think are possible.”
Reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who played with Woods the last two rounds and is likely to be one of his four captain’s picks on Nov. 7 for the Presidents Cup on Dec. 12-15 in Melbourne, Australia, said 82 wins are “simply amazing.”
“The ball-striking exhibition I’ve seen the last two days is a joke,” said Woodland, who finished fifth at 268. “I don’t see him stopping anytime soon. Eighty-two’s pretty special, and I think there’s a lot more in store. You look at the guys who have won 10 times, and it’s pretty special.”
There are 117 players who have reached that plateau, but Woods and 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth are the only ones to do it before their 24th birthday, with Spieth achieving the feat when he became the lone player in PGA Tour history to hole a bunker shot in a playoff to win. Bubba Watson said he hoped to win 10 times when he captured his first PGA Tour title in the 2010 Travelers Championship in a playoff with Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank and attained his desired number in the 2018 Genesis Open, which was four months before a third victory at TPC River Highlands.
“It’s only the major conversation to think about someone arguing that Tiger is not the greatest ever to play the game,” said Spieth, who tied for 66th on Sunday. “It’s an incredible feat.”
Woods, who will be 44 in December, won his 82 titles in only 27 different events, compared to 45 for Slammin’ Sammy, who was 52 when he ended his World Golf Hall of Fame run in the Greater Greensboro Open. It took Woods 359 starts to reach the magic number, compared to Snead’s 425, but Tiger was limited to seven starts in 2014 and only one in 2017 due to his litany of surgeries. And it was 1,876 days between wins 79 and 80 and 3,954 days between his 14th major and astonishing 15th earlier this year at Augusta National.
“It’s satisfying to dig my way out of it and figure out a way,” Woods said of his many comebacks, which have included the numerous injuries, a public scandal, a DUI, a mug shot, treatment for substance abuse and chipping yips. “There were some hard times trying to figure it out, but I’ve come back with different games over the years, moving patterns, and this one’s been obviously the most challenging. Then having another procedure a couple months ago and again coming back and winning an event, not easy to do.”
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, was effusive in his sentiments about Woods.
“On behalf of the PGA Tour, I would like to congratulate Tiger Woods for tying Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour victories record of 82 at the inaugural ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP,” Monahan said in a statement. “Today, we celebrate both Tiger and Sam Snead as they share a record that, given how difficult it is to win just once on the PGA Tour, should sit squarely alongside the greatest accomplishments in sporting history.
“Tiger has inspired us throughout his career with his talent, passion and the ability to shine in big moments, and he continues to defy even the most outsized expectations with performances like we saw this week. Our fans certainly have a lot to look forward to in the coming season as Tiger sets his sights on win No. 83 – and more, I would suspect — competing against many of the players he helped inspire along the way.”
Woods’ litany of records is astonishing, but the most notable/memorable to this scribe are holding the margin of victory record in all four major championships within the first seven years of his pro career; notching the Tiger Slam of four consecutive major wins from the 2008 U.S. Open, an unthinkable 15-stroke victory at Pebble Beach Golf Links, to the 2009 Masters; capturing the 2008 U.S. Open in a playoff with Rocco Mediate while playing basically on one leg, the defining moment of his legacy that enabled him to join Nicklaus as the only players to win all four majors at least three times; being ranked No. 1 for 683 weeks, more than twice that of his nearest competitor; making 142 consecutive cuts, 27 more than the previous record of Nicklaus, from the 1998 Buick Invitational to the 2005 Wachovia Championship, the streak ending at the Byron Nelson Championship; winning 22 of 44 starts, a staggering .500 batting average, in 2007-08 while going 25-for-58, .430 percent, in 2005-09; going 44-for-46 when leading after 54 holes, the only players to overtake him being the unlikely duo of Ed Fiori and Y.E. Yang; and setting records for PGA of America Player of the Year (11 times), PGA Tour Player of the Year (11), PGA Tour money leader (10), PGA Vardon Trophy for low stroke average (nine) and recipient of PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson Award for lowest adjusted scoring average (nine).
Woods also has PGA Tour records for knee and back surgeries to go with several marital affairs that helped lead to a divorce from wife Elin Nordegren, the mother of his two children, and unthinkably dropping to 1,999th in the world golf rankings.
From 2014 through 2017, Woods often couldn’t even swing a club. He gave updates on his health, often grim, at Presidents Cups and Ryder Cups, where he served as an assistant to U.S. captains. Finally, in April of 2017, Woods saw Dr. Richard Guyer of the Center for Disc Replacement at the Texas Back Institute, where spinal fusion surgery gave him a new lease on life. For the first time in years, he played a full schedule in 2018, punctuating it with his 80th win, his first in more than five years, in the season-ending Tour Championship 13 months ago.
“Probably the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again,” he said at the time. “Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lay down without feeling the pain that I was in? I just didn’t want to live that way. This is how the rest of my life is going to be?”’
Despite some success in a little more than a year, Woods has had complications. His left knee was aching by the end of 2018, but he wanted to play the 2019 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January, so he put off surgery. That seemed like a good choice as he won the Masters in April, his 81st title and 15th major championship, three behind Nicklaus.
But that euphoria gave way to more pain. His knee hurt so much that he couldn’t get down to read putts. He didn’t mention it, but his scores fell off and he faded from contention. He failed to reach the Tour Championship and underwent his fifth knee operation on Aug. 20.
So Woods was somewhat of a question mark for the ZOZO Championship, his first appearance in Japan in 13 years. Would the knee hold up under the strain of tournament golf? After the bogey-bogey-bogey start, he made nine birdies, shooting 5-under 29 on the front nine (his back nine) for an opening 64. A typhoon and 10 inches of rain wiped out the second round before it began, but he bounced back with another 64 and closed with 66-67 for a win in a record seventh country: United States, England, Scotland, Spain, Canada, Ireland and Japan.
“To battle through the injuries that he’s dealt with – gosh, he’s young and he’s playing unbelievable,” Woodland said.
Said Woods: “I didn’t really know that I would come back and play at this level. Heck, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to walk correctly again a few years ago.”
Woods’ chase toward immortality began with a hole-in-one in his pro debut, the Greater Milwaukee Open. And his first W came in a playoff with Davis Love III in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, only his fifth pro start and the first of a record 16 states in which he has won.
When will Tiger break the record with No. 83? That depends on when he plays next – the Farmers Insurance Open in January at Torrey Pines in San Diego, where he has won eight times, including the 2008 U.S. Open, is a good bet – and whether and for how long he stays healthy.
“As far as playing until 52, I hope that’s the case,” Woods said. “If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have given you a different answer, but certainly the future looks brighter than it has, and hopefully I can be as consistent as (Snead) was well into my 40s and early 50s.”
And it appears as if Woods will be the first playing captain since Hale Irwin in 1994. When asked after he prevailed Sunday if he thought he might be swinging and putting in Australia next month rather than just riding around in a golf cart, working a walkie-talking, giving pep talks and filling out pairings lineups with his three vice captains, Woods smiled and said, “I think I certainly, as a player, got the captain’s attention.”
Woodland said he and Woods joked with each other that they both needed a pick so they were trying to impress Tiger.
“I think Tiger’s got a good grasp on what he wants to do,” Woodland said. “I had a great year earlier in the year and I played well the last two weeks, so hopefully that’s enough. And if he doesn’t (pick himself) that’s dumb because right now it is hard to bet against that guy in anything, especially in match play. He’s going to have a force whether he is playing or not, but I would pick him.”
Woods’ victory also enhanced his thoughts of competing in his first Olympics.
“I hope to qualify for the team and represent my country,” said Woods, who has played in eight Ryder Cups and eight Presidents Cups, including winning teams in 1998 and 2011 at Royal Melbourne Golf Club. “I know some of my friends have made Olympic teams before in the past, and they said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I have never played for a gold medal before and certainly it would be an honor to do it. And especially at the age I’ll be, 44, and I don’t know if I have many more chances after that.”
When Woods captured first PGA Tour title, there were 402 players ahead of him in wins. Now there are none, and it was great to see loyal Joe LaCava give his boss and good friend Tiger a hearty hug on the 18th green. LaCava, a Newtown native, has caddied for some of the game’s marquee players for 30 years, including Woods since 2011. But he declined offers from several good players to work for them during Woods’ lengthy absence from competition.
“If he’s healthy, he’s going to be all right,” LaCava said. “And once he gets that confidence up, he’s tough to beat.”
So who’s the greatest of all time in golf? Nicklaus and Woods have bushels of credentials, and in May, Woods received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, joining Nicklaus as two of only four golfers to get the country’s highest civilian honor.
No athlete has reinvented himself more often than Woods, and few have clawed back from such depths. Perhaps GolfChannel analyst Frank Nobilo had the best answer to the “Who’s The Best Ever?” question.
“A lot of people have talked about whether Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods is the greatest player of all-time,” Nobilo said. “Jack Nicklaus never matched Sam Snead’s record, but it was matched (Sunday).”
I agree with Frank – by a Tiger’s whisker.