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Tiger Woods: Is He the Biggest Front-Runner in Sports History?

Ron Juckett@ronjuckettContributor IIIJune 28, 2012

Tiger Alone With His Thoughts
Tiger Alone With His ThoughtsStuart Franklin/Getty Images

In the remarkable 15-year career that Tiger Woods has produced, it certainly is fair to say that adversity is not his friend.

While Woods has come from behind on a few Sunday afternoons over the years, he has never won a major without being in the lead after the third round. Not once.

For all his dominance, it has come from being in the lead.

The real reason why Woods has no true rival, including Phil Mickelson, is that there has never been a great Sunday duel at a major.

Yeah, Tiger and Phil traded birdies one Sunday a few years ago at Doral, but missing from all Tiger’s aura is that weekend of unforgettable superhuman drama dueling against the game’s very best.

Tiger has been forced to three playoffs in his major championship career, and he has won them all—but they came against Bob May, Chris DiMarco and Rocco Mediate. Those three have combined for nine PGA Tour wins and no majors.

So, is Tiger Woods the biggest front-runner in sports history? Yes.

Here is why.

All great athletes and teams reach the top of their game by overcoming some huge obstacle. 

Michael Jordan had to beat the Detroit Pistons before breaking through to win the NBA title. Wayne Gretzky failed on his first attempt to win the Stanley Cup. The Dallas Cowboys lost two NFL Championship games and their first Super Bowl before winning. 

Tiger Passed This Test in 2000
Tiger Passed This Test in 2000David Cannon/Getty Images

Great baseball teams like the 1975 Cincinnati Reds or the 1986 New York Mets were pushed to the brink before fighting back to win the World Series. Even Muhammad Ali had George Foreman and Joe Frazier as true equals when he returned from his exile in the early 1970s.

Tiger? He won his first professional major by 12 shots at the 1997 Masters. 

While golf can be a tricky sport to get the same five great players going head-to-head on a given week, the great Jack Nicklaus battled Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson head-to-head at majors. Nicklaus would win some and lose in excruciating fashion as well. It built Jack into a better player and made for captivating dramatic television.

Tiger’s greatest dramas have been with himself. Could he walk his way through his playoff against Mediate at the 2008 United States Open at Torrey Pines? Can he defeat his demons in rebuilding his new swing? Can he handle his emotions after his marriage fell apart?

When pressed to make that comeback to win, like Jordan had to do after consecutive playoff exits against Detroit or the 2004 Boston Red Sox that had to come back from three games down just to go to the World Series, he has yet to stand and deliver.

If he was ahead by Friday night, then watch out. If, on the other hand, he was not in the last group on Sunday, then forget it.

For all of Tiger’s accomplishments in the sport and being such a master course tactician, he has never actually used that to come from behind or hold off an equal head-to-head. Not Phil, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk or Ernie Els at the heights of their games when the pressure is greatest.

It really is astonishing that he has either blitzed the field or struggled to contend. For all the pressure he has put on himself over the years, he remains virtually untested in such an important fashion. 

The Ryder Cup, perhaps the most pressure packed of all golf events, has him with a losing record all-time. He has won 12 matches, losing 14, while halving two. For someone that really is one of the best ever to play the game, that is a pretty below-average record.

Now, as Tiger enters the backside of his career, one has to wonder just how he would actually deal playing with a Luke Donald or a Rory McIlroy with a major on the line on a Sunday. If pushed, could he really shove back?

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