by Doug Ferguson
(AP)—To appreciate how fast and how far Tiger Woods has fallen is to understand what put him on such a pinnacle in sports.
Woods put his name on every page of the PGA Tour record book with 10 incomparable years in golf. He won more major championships than anyone except Jack Nicklaus, more PGA Tour events than anyone except four of the greatest golfers in history. That’s not his career, that’s his decade.
|‘MOST DOMINANT ATHLETE OF THE DECADE’—This is an April 11, 2008, file photo showing Tiger Woods hitting out of a bunker on the second hole during the second round of the 2008 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.
Then, in just days, he became a tabloid magnet. No one can be certain how Woods will weather the storm.
His past as a golfer, however, is not up for debate. Woods turned in one of the greatest 10-year spans in golf history, making him a candidate for The Associated Press’ Athlete of the Decade.
“He is doing stuff that no one else has done in the sport,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “He has changed the game.”
Only a month ago, any discussion involving Woods was about his golf. The conversation becomes more muddled now, ever since his mysterious late-night traffic accident on Nov. 27 and all that followed: the lurid allegations from mistresses, Woods’ shattering admission of infidelity, and his pleas for the privacy he craves but has forever lost.
Talk has turned from whether Woods will win the next Masters to whether he’ll even tee it up, now that he’s taking an “indefinite” break from the sport to become a better husband, father and person.
The lone time Nicklaus played with Woods in a major, he walked off the course at the 2000 PGA Championship and said, “I think he’s a better player than I was.” At the end of a decade, all Nicklaus could say of the world’s No. 1 player was: “He’ll figure it out.” Nicklaus was talking about Woods’ private life, not his golf.
Yet the game is defined by numbers, not personal analysis.
Woods won his first U.S. Open by 15 shots. He won another U.S. Open in a playoff on a broken leg. Not only did he become the youngest player—at 24—to complete the career Grand Slam, he won the Grand Slam twice more before the decade was over. And he became the only player in history to hold all four professional majors at the same time.
“If you’re the fastest in the world, you’ll be there at the death. In golf, that’s not always the case,” said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal & Ancient. “Golf, because of its very nature, is difficult to dominate. And so the way Tiger has dominated is quite remarkable. At a time when technology is supposed to be a great equalizer, at a time when there are more and more good players, it’s absolutely astonishing. That, above all else, is the measure of his performance.”
Woods won 56 times on the PGA Tour this decade, including 12 majors. He won at a staggering rate of 30 percent, with nine victories by at least eight shots.
“I don’t know of anyone who has been at the pinnacle consistently over 10 years—in his case, more than 10 years,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “All of that is punctuated by a long series of incredibly fantastic things to do it. Add it all up, and he’s the most recognized athlete on the planet.”
Two majors at both ends of the decade, with different outcomes, speak to how Woods has ruled his sport—one because of the ridiculous margin by which he won, the other because of the news it made when he lost.
The first was the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Woods became the first player to finish at double digits under par (12), a barrier similar to the 4-minute mile. He finished a 15 shots ahead, the largest margin in 140 years of major championship golf.
The other was the 2009 PGA Championship, where Y.E. Yang proved that Woods is human on the course. It was the first time Woods had led a major going into the final round without winning, perhaps the biggest shocker of the decade until his “transgressions” were suddenly revealed.
Between those majors, Woods delivered a rate of winning never before seen.
“He’s ruthless when it comes to winning,” Paul Goydos said.
Beyond the trophies—that includes eight money titles—are the anecdotes. Like the time he hit a 6-iron out of a bunker, over the water and right at the flag with the tournament on the line in Canada. Or when his famous chip at the 2005 Masters ran up the green, made a U-turn, then hung on the edge of the cup for two full seconds and dropped for birdie.
Another long list, although the most memorable was his 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole of the 2008 U.S. Open to force a playoff, which he won the next day. Two days later, Woods revealed he had shredded ligaments in his left knee and a double stress fracture in his left tibia. He had season-ending surgery the following week.
With each moment, the legend grew.
Few other athletes have meant more to their sports. Television ratings spiked when Woods played, and often doubled when he won. Total prize money on the PGA Tour was $65 million when Woods turned pro in 1996. This year, prize money was at $275 million.
“That’s one guy’s fault,” Ogilvy said. “That hasn’t happened in tennis, has it? If you can’t separate sports, if you can’t compare them, you have to look at other ways he has changed the game.
“Look at this,” Ogilvy said, pointing to some 5,000 fans trailing after Woods in a tournament played recently in China. “That wouldn’t have happened without him.”
Finchem pointed beyond prize money to the galleries Woods attracted on the PGA Tour, which helped the tour go over $1 billion in charity (almost all tournaments are nonprofit events), and to how he helped make golf part of the conversation among mainstream sports.
“Pick any metric applied to all sports, and his contribution has lifted the game,” Finchem said.
Woods has been No. 1 in the world ranking for all but 32 weeks during the decade. Not since Tom Watson in 1980 had any player won six PGA Tour events in one season. Woods did it five times this decade, including nine victories in 2000, a year that became the benchmark of his success.
Over the ’00s, Woods didn’t have one rival. He recycled them.
Ernie Els might have said it best at the start of the decade, when he went toe-to-toe with Woods over the final 38 holes in Hawaii.
Woods matched his eagle on the final hole to force a playoff, matched his birdie on the first extra hole, then won with a 35-foot birdie.
“I think he’s a legend in the making,” Els said that day. “You guys have helped, but he’s backed it up with his golf game. He’s 24. He’s probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s.”
For a long time, that statement had the ring of truth. Now, who knows? Yet even if Woods never picks up a club again, it’s hard to argue he was anything but the most dominant athlete of the decade.