Tiger Woods of old hasn’t returned. But the Tiger Woods of new is pretty damn good.
Is he back? With every stroke of greatness that Tiger Woods takes, that’s the question resting on the tips of the tongues that love the sport of golf. Is the greatest player we ever saw…back? Will the sport live to see another resurgence of its popularity ride the shoulders of a superstar and his iconic fist pump?
The short answer is no. The sensation that was Tiger Woods at the turn of the century isn’t a phenomenon that can be turned on with a switch –that was once-in-a-lifetime domination that he put on display. To ask him to ever be back to that status would be like asking Michael Jordan to win six more championships after he joined the Washington Wizards. Even those that earn the distinction of “best ever” can’t be asked to do it…forever.
Golf was better and more exciting when it was Tiger versus the field. But those days are gone. Is he back? No; the Tiger Woods that dazzled both sides of the millennium will never again win four majors in a row, or cause young golfers to shoot in the eighties with nothing but his stare and a giant gallery. Those days are, as I said, gone. But perhaps we should be asking a different question. Even if Tiger will never again be the undisputed champion of golf, is it too much to say that he is, once again, the best in the world?
I think it’s time to answer that question with a resounding yes.
To be fair, it’s a distinction that is no longer undisputable. Fifteen different golfers have won the last fifteen majors. A 54-hole lead next to the name Woods no longer sends other contenders screaming to their mommies. And according to the World Golf Rankings (which I think hold about as much weight as one of the Olsen twins), Tiger Woods isn’t first…he’s fourth, looking up at Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, and Lee Westwood (and their one combined major).
But rankings aside, I think a case can easily be made that Tiger Woods is the best golfer on the planet right now. It doesn’t take advanced statistics to see that he’s having the best 2012 on the PGA Tour. Despite only playing 11 events, Tiger leads the tour in wins with three. No player in 2011 won three events. Woods also leads the PGA in Scoring Average (69.04), money accumulated ($4.2 million), and in the standings that actually do decide something: the Fed Ex Cup Standings.
While everyone rushed to anoint Rory McIlroy as the second coming of Tiger, he quietly missed several consecutive cuts and floundered in the U.S. Open. He’s good, maybe great, but that conversation came too soon. If anyone deserves to be considered the best golfer right now, and isn’t Woods, it may be Jason Dufner. He closely trails Woods in wins, money earned, and Fed Ex points (though that’s also after playing in four more events). Dufner also leads the PGA in Top 10 finishes this year with six. Alas, it isn’t his name that the ranking gurus have decided to elevate above the immortal Tiger Woods.
Instead, they’ve designated the trio of Donald, McIlroy, and Westwood to be better than Woods right now. That’s funny considering that this trio has a combined two 2012 wins to Tiger’s three. While Woods stands atop the Fed Ex rankings, McIlroy is 7th, Donald is 14th, and Westwood is 37th. And even though Woods experienced a slump (and the oft forgotten fact that he was recovering from a reconstructed knee) in recent years, it isn’t like these three have a track record of being better in the biggest moments. Let’s not forget that Tiger Woods has won 14 majors. Donald, McIlroy, and Westwood have one…combined.
So yes, it’s almost impossible that we will ever recapture the Tiger Woods that swept through the golfing world, took it by the balls, and delivered the most dominating athletic performances of our generation. But the signs of the new Tiger Woods should still scare his competitors. His driving accuracy is better than it’s ever been. He’s winning tournaments. And he’s continuing to improve. While putts largely derailed his chances at the Masters and US Open, he finished the third round of the Congressional with a perfect 100% on putts within ten feet. The pieces are falling into place. It’s only a matter of time before he hoists another major trophy.
The difference between Tiger then and Tiger now is parity. Now, you have to give names like Kuchar, Dufner, Watson, McIlroy, Westwood, Furyk, and Mahan honorable mention. In the early 2000s, there was no honorable mention. Tiger reigned supreme. So no, the Tiger of old isn’t back. But it seems that there is a good chance that he is still the best.
Beneath the noise, controversy, constant media scrutiny, and the pervading question of “Is he back?”, the golfing world is missing the opportunity to see the ongoing narrative of where Tiger Woods has been. This is a living legend walking the course. With each win, and each hint at a resurgence, Woods is walking a path on the links that few have footed before him. And he’s doing it at a pace that shatters the records of old. Forget whether or not Woods is the best now. He is the best ever. Let’s enjoy that.
With Woods’ win at Congressional on Sunday, he secured his 74th win on the PGA Tour, passing Jack Nicklaus and only trailing Sam Snead, who won 82. Those are legendary names and legendary numbers. But here’s the kicker: Tiger Woods is only 36. When Nicklaus won his last tournament, he was 46. When Snead won his last tournament, he was 53. Woods is in amazing athletic shape. If he can last until 46, he’ll have ten years to get nine more victories and pass Snead. If he can last until 53, he’ll have seventeen years. Seventeen years, nine victories –something tells me that the long-standing record of Sam Snead will not only be broken; it will be left in the dust.
But that’s not the record that Woods dreams of. As a child, a poster of Jack Nicklaus hung on his wall—a man he literally looked up to. And he still does. It is no secret that Woods covets the all-time majors record, which belongs to Nicklaus, who won 18. Woods sits at 14, and with his recent slump, those who used to think his securing of this record was inevitable suddenly think it’s nearly impossible.
Let’s put that notion in perspective. Nicklaus won his eighteenth major at the age of 46, ten years older than Woods is now. How many of those majors came after Nicklaus’ 36th birthday? The answer is the magic number. He won four majors after 36 with his wins at the 1978 British Open, the 1980 U.S. Open and PGA Championship, and the 1986 Masters.
It just so happens that Woods is exactly four behind him. Even if Woods only has those ten years left in the tank after 2012, that’s 40 major championships of which he would only have to win four to tie Nicklaus’ record. When you consider that Woods won four in a row from 2000 to 2001 and four out of five from 2005 to 2006, four out of forty seems doable –even for a Woods past the best prime we’ve ever seen.
Many say it won’t happen after the controversy and the subsequent slump. They say he can’t get it back. But if Nicklaus would have faced the same constant scrutiny and 24-hour sports media, the same doubts likely would have fallen on his shoulders. He didn’t win a major from 1968 to 1970, and in 1979, failed to win any tournaments whatsoever. There were six years between his seventeenth and eighteenth major championships. And yet, he always bounced back. In golf, there’s always another round to play.
It’s tough for us to admit that legends of sport can be surpassed by someone playing before our very eyes. But with Tiger Woods, it’s time to admit it’s happening. He’s the best any of us have ever seen. Let’s not miss the ongoing history because we’ve succumb to nostalgia. Not only does Woods seem poised to shatter the marks of legends, but he has done so beneath a pressure that none of them ever knew. Nicklaus never had every swing, on and off the course, followed by cameras and screaming fans. Snead never saw his face on a tabloid. Hogan never had to focus on a shot while thousands of people tried to sneak a cell-phone pick. No legend has ever had to apologize for anything beyond the course –until now.
Woods’ legacy, of course, will always be tainted by the controversy that found him beyond the golf course. Like many athletes in this new hyper-scrutinized society, he lost the battle to be something more than human. He did things that few sane people would ever condone. And perhaps, to an extent, that did more than hurt his family and friends. Perhaps it tainted the game of golf.
But Woods’ legacy must also include the positive impact he’s had on the game of golf. The sport suffered, and continues to suffer, from elitism. It’s an upper-class, white, country-club sport. But slowly, that might be changing, and much of that is because Tiger Woods brought a whole new audience and hope to the sport of golf. Slowly but surely, the faces beneath the hats are starting to change. Woods has been an ambassador for African and Asian Americans alike, and his fresh style brought youth and lower-income fans to the game. And that transition is finally starting to break through.
In 2011, Joseph Bramlett made the PGA Tour. He was the first African-American to do so since Tiger Woods. He had watched Woods as a youngster, and even followed his path to Stanford. It’s hopefully a small step forward that will soon be met by a stampede. According to the PGA, 13.7% of Asian-Americans and 7% of African-Americans play golf. A study in 2007 claimed that 12% of PGA Tour Event attendants were black. It’s hard to find studies of old (because the PGA wasn’t broadcasting their lack of diversity), but something tells me those numbers were much lower before Tiger hit the scene.
Just look at the visual evidence. When Nicklaus sunk his shot in 1986, you’d be hard-pressed to find an arm raised to the sky that isn’t white.
Even in 1997, when Woods showed the world his first fist pump victory, the gallery still appears to be suffering from a lack of color.
But in 2008, you can see that the scene is starting to change. It’s something. It’s a start. It’s a promise for a better future.
And that’s the beauty of Tiger Woods’ living legacy. Yes, he’s made mistakes. And no, he’s not back. But his impact that continues to walk the fairways before our very eyes encompasses golf’s past, present, and future. He’s the best now, he’s the best that ever was, and the best that ever will be. Is he back? No.
Tiger Woods never left.