The debate about who is the best golfer of all time is a popular one. The question, “Who’s the best?” has been posed several times on this site. Most recently, Michael Fitzpatrick’s column sparked a spirited discussion.
This is not so much a discussion of whether Tiger, Jack, Hogan or Jones is the greatest golfer of all time, but rather the assertion of a simple truth: There will never be another Tiger Woods.
Plainly stated, because of his background and the moment in history in which he burst onto the golfing scene, there will never be another athlete both as hyped and as broadly significant as Tiger Woods. Additionally, Woods lived up to that hype in 1999-2000, putting together a stretch of play that will never be equaled in a new PGA Tour era of increased parity and international players/play.
Surely you’ve seen the clip a thousand times: Tiger Woods, age 2, hitting golf balls with Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show. Woods was featured in Golf Digest at age 5 and had already won dozens of trophies by that time. Beyond the media attention, the whisperings amongst those in the golf industry that Woods hopped out of his high-chair with a perfect swing were nearly as powerful.
The Tiger Woods Myth—that a multiracial, middle class golfer would eventually dominate a game historically played by rich white men—gathered real momentum with Tiger’s three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur victories from 1991 to ‘93. No one before, or since, has won more than one. Tiger followed this with three consecutive U.S. Amateur Victories, posting the highest career winning percentage in the history of the tournaments (91 percent).
When Tiger left Stanford at age 20 after winning Collegiate Player of the Year, he easily had the greatest amateur golf record of all time.
Professional career aside, there will never be another amateur golfer nearly as accomplished as Tiger Woods.
Maybe you know this guy: Mr. “I only watch golf when Tiger is in contention.”
Woods has seemed to be the only golfer that people who are sports fans in general, but not golf fans in particular, seem to care about. I cannot support this with any empirical data, but it has certainly been my experience.
Tiger’s historic 1997 Masters victory is the highest-rated golf telecast in history. Additionally, when Woods was sidelined with a knee injury in 2008, TV ratings for golf dropped by 47 percent. Simply put, sports fans tune in for Tiger.
Additionally, consider the swelling galleries surrounding Woods at every tournament and ponder this question: Were Woods not playing, how many of those in his gallery would even be at the tournament?
Do you remember 1996 in the world of PGA Tour golf?
Tiger Woods played in three of the four majors and made his “official” professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open. The most notable tournament of the year was the Masters, in which Greg Norman melted down, shooting a final round 78 to hand Nick Faldo his third green jacket.
The compelling trio of Tom Lehman, Phil Mickelson and Mark Brooks sat atop the money list. Mickelson was the leading tournament winner with four victories. Norman was still the most high-profile golfer on tour, but his star was fading; his implosion at Augusta was really the death knell for the Shark.
Really, in the mid-90s there was a significant vacuum in the sport. Nick Price and Greg Norman were the decade’s most dominant forces, but neither had the charisma of even Tom Watson or Seve Ballesteros, prominent figures in the previous decade.
Additionally, golf is now an international game (best players play internationally, PGA Tour is saturated with foreign players) in a way that it has never been previously. The best players in the world are still primarily from Europe and the United States, but more players from more countries are joining the Tour. Also, the game is as accessible as it has ever been to the largest number of people and youth instruction continues to trend upwards.
From the $40 million contract in 1995, to the “Hello, World” commercial to the entire Nike Golf brand launched, essentially, just for Tiger. There will never be another parallel situation in golf. What would be similar? If Matteo Manassero were signed by Reebok for $50 million to launch a golf apparel and equipment line?
If Manassero is the most promising young golfer in golf right now, he has only a fraction of the mythos and hype surrounding him that Tiger did. Reebok is only a fraction of the size of Nike. Perhaps, these two are a poor pairing...but who else? There will never be another opportunity for an athlete-corporation pairing along the lines of Woods-Nike.
Earl Woods, a former Army Green Beret, instilled in his son a militaristic determination. He inspired an iron will in the face of adversity, unstoppable self-confidence, an appreciation for routine, order, and standard operating procedure...and, indeed, a killer instinct. He whispered to Tiger of his conquering destiny and his power for greatness, both on and off the golf course.
Kultida, Tiger’s Thai mother, a practicing Buddhist, imparted to her son the value of meditation and of concentrated energy and of a relaxed mind, poised to strike. In sharing her faith/ philosophy with Woods, she conveyed the importance of self-control and the futility of seeking happiness outside of one’s self.
Sufficient to say, in the wake of his monumental infidelity and given the obvious disconnect between man and myth, he, at least momentarily, turned his back on the wisdom his parents shared.
Regardless, there will never be another golfer with a Green Beret for a father—who believes he has a divine mandate to raise his child to be a great golfer and humanitarian. Nor will there be another golfer with a Buddhist mother who, in regard to his opponents, tells her son to “kill them...go for their throats.”
Earl Woods, profoundly divisive figure that he was, deserves a slide of his own because of his relationship to/belief in his son and the way he represented Tiger to the world, particularly the golfing media.
The best encapsulation of Earl’s beliefs about Tiger, and a fine example of how he spoke about his prodigious son to the world/press, was presented by Gary Smith in his 1996 Sports Illustrated article “The Chosen One.” Smith quotes Woods speaking at the Fred Haskins Award Dinner for the outstanding college golfer of the year.
"Please forgive me...but sometimes I get very emotional...when I talk about my son.... My heart...fills with so...much...joy...when I realize...that this young man...is going to be able...to help so many people.... He will transcend this game...and bring to the world...a humanitarianism...which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in...by virtue of his existence...and his presence.... I acknowledge only a small part in that...in that I know that I was personally selected by God himself...to nurture this young man...and bring him to the point where he can make his contribution to humanity.... This is my treasure.... Please accept it...and use it wisely.... Thank you."
Because there will never be another father of a golfing phenomenon who regards his son in this fashion, there will never be another Tiger Woods.
When Tiger Woods tapped in his final putt on the 18th green at Augusta to win the 1997 Masters he became the first multi-racial (non-white) winner of a major golf tournament, seemingly opening the door for all those who aren’t born with the privilege of white skin.
Additionally, his 12-shot victory was the largest margin of victory ever in a major championship was the largest in the 20th century. Because of the dominant nature of his performance and his age, the victory was a triumph unlike any other in the history of golf.
The 1997 Masters was the beginning of Tiger Woods period of dominance on the PGA Tour, which peaked during the 2000 season.
During this era, Woods, the game’s largest ever business driver singlehandedly boosted industry sales, TV ratings and gallery attendance, as well as, it might be assumed, a renewed enthusiasm for the game amongst the young...the 1997 Masters put all of this into motion.
Certainly, Tiger’s decision to rebuild his swing after the 1997 Masters is something without a historical parallel, save for perhaps Nick Faldo’s work with David Leadbetter.
Woods had just won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, then the largest margin of victory in a major event. His victory was the culmination of what began when he imitated his father’s swing with a vacuum attachment as a toddler. It was a historic victory in a multitude of ways. If nothing else, Woods demonstrated that with his existing swing he had the capacity to be much, much better than his competitors.
I think we assumed at the time that Woods was entirely capable of passing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories, which had been his stated goal since he tacked a timeline of Jack’s achievements to his bedroom wall as a child. I think we assumed, also, that it was only a matter of how long it took Tiger to accomplish the feat.
In turning to Butch Harmon to rebuild his swing, Woods seemed to acknowledge that he had a good enough swing to win more majors than Nicklaus, but that he wanted a swing which would win many more majors than the Golden Bear.
This line of thinking is so profoundly foreign to the vast majority of professional golfers. Rory McIlroy, the most prodigious, skilled and dominant golfer to emerge since Woods, isn’t considering anything of the sort. If any other golfer is fortunate enough to reach a similar summit as Woods did after the ‘97 Masters, his first call will certainly not be to a swing coach.
At every phase in his career, Tiger was not only better than his competitors, but significantly better than them. This continued on the PGA Tour, until the mid 2000’s. That he did not keep up his dominance and that he has rather fallen to earth is beside the point. There will never be another golfer who dominates at the junior, amateur, collegiate and professional levels in the way the Tiger Woods did.
Further, in a future of increased pressure and parity, there will never be another golfer so clearly regarded by his superiors as so profoundly superior. As Gene Wojciechowski put it in a 2006 piece, “He has... neutered his peers.”
Woods’ perceived superiority in the eyes of his competitors (at the time) was well stated by Shaun Micheel, who said, “I mean, we all smirk and laugh when he says he's got his 'B' game, but that's better than most of our 'A' games.”
Wojciechowski voiced the prevailing opinion of the time when he wrote, “Woods doesn’t have anybody within a par-5 of him on tour” and suggested that Tiger’s only competition was Jack Nicklaus and himself (how true the latter).
This is the ultimate reason there can never be another Tiger Woods.
Consider what happened...
What would be similar? Finding out Gandhi had a harem? That the Pope has a meth lab? That Oprah routinely clubs baby seals?
To the extent that the Tiger Woods Persona was a shared creation of Earl Woods, Team Tiger, Woods himself, the golfing media (and media in general) and his legion of fans, it’s impossible to imagine another such construction coming into being.
It’s also equally impossible to imagine that someone portrayed so often as an incorruptible humanitarian and a devoted father would be revealed to be a philandering, profoundly self-centered sham and that a person once so exalted would come to be regarded as someone who brought shame on the game.