Coming into the NEC Invitational tournament at Firestone last August, many in the media questioned whether Tiger Woods was a lock for Player of the Year. Despite having already won two Majors in 2005, Tiger's decision to leave the PGA Championship early led to criticism that he was "underachieving." Apparently lost in these assessments was the fact that, statistically and otherwise, Woods was on his way to completing one of the best seasons of his career. But such is the life of the greatest golfer in the world: you become a victim of unattainable expectations.
Of course, Tiger has been battling his own and others' expectations for himself his entire life. But it was his 2000 season, merely the greatest in golf's history, that truly set him apart. That year, his play was so dominant that his lowest finish was a tie for 23rd. What's more, if his worst consecutive rounds of golf hadn't happened to occur on Thursday and Friday at Augusta, he may have taken home the official grand slam. In spite of that stumble, he went on to be the only golfer to shoot both rounds in the 60s on the weekend and ended up with a "disappointing 5th-place finish.
Certainly, one could have foreseen a spectacular 2000 for Tiger, given that he had won seven of the last 10 tournaments of 1999, including each of the last four. However, to predict that he would finish in the top three almost 75 percent of the time, and win nearly half of the time, is outrageous. It spoiled the public, as all of a sudden this was what was expected of Tiger in a game where perfection is impossible. In essence, he shot himself in the foot by being so dominant so early in his career. Way to blow that one, Tiger.
Tiger's success - as with all of the game's greats - will always be measured in major championship wins. When you win your first Masters at 22 and sweep all four grand slam trophies in a row three years later, you are vaulted into golf's elite.
Which brings me to Tiger's 2005 season. Last year, his average finish in Majors was second, just as it was during his 2000 romp. Winning the Masters and the British Open, Tiger is one of only four players in the past 30 years (along with some guys named Nicklaus, Watson and Faldo) to claim two Major titles in the same season - and he's done it three times. His six overall tour victories last season ranked second on his personal best list.
Thus, ladies and gentlemen, last year you witnessed Tiger's second greatest season as a professional. Yet, the skepticism still seems evident. It wasn't good enough just to win the Masters; we had to discuss his bogeys on 17 and 18 that followed one of the greatest shots in major championship history. It wasn't good enough just to win the British Open; come on, that course is tailored to his game. Did you see him three-putt down the stretch at the US Open? What a choke! Never mind that he shot two-under on the back nine on Sunday. And how could he pull out of the PGA Championship on Sunday? I mean, he only needed each of the final three players to bogey the reachable par-5 18th on Monday. If Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn had two-putted from inside a foot, and Phil Mickelson had three-putted from one foot (maybe not too far-fetched), we would have had a playoff!
Think that criticism ticked Woods off? He just went out the next week and won at the NEC - again. Suddenly, nothing but silence from the critics as the conversation turned back to Tiger as Player of the Year after his so-called professional "lowpoint."
The scary part about all of this is that Tiger indeed could have performed better. His wire-to-wire British Open win was outstanding, and his shot-making at the Masters was clutch. But one couldn't help but notice how many strokes Tiger left on the course at the PGA. It's unbelievable to think that a guy who burned every cup edge on day one, and who parred two par-5s on day three (while still shooting 65, by the way), only lost by two strokes - and he could have won by three.
In a sense, that PGA performance was emblematic of Tiger's 2005 overall. During a "weak" year when the shots weren't (always) falling his way, Tiger still managed to be a consistent threat on the leaderboard against the toughest field golf has ever assembled.
As for 2006, the Masters and another "ho-hum" 3rd-place finish from Woods are already in the books. Now taking time off to grieve the passing of his late father before the US Open in June, Tiger can again expect the same lofty expectations this year that dampened the golfing world's appreciation for a truly remarkable 2005.
Then again, he's used to it - he's Tiger Woods.