Tiger Woods won 14 of his first 46 major-championship starts after turning professional. In the game’s storied history, no numbers favorably compare. Jack Nicklaus, the man whose record Woods is chasing, needed 10 more tournaments to reach that mark. Nobody else has ever gotten within two of that total – for an entire career.
And yet, the numbers alone were never as impressive as the intangibles. During that time, Woods forged an aura of invincibility. He won while dominating his competitors; he won while breaking their hearts. He won when he was better than everybody else; he won when he failed to have his best stuff. He just won. By any means necessary. He won and he won and he won. And then, he didn’t anymore. He just … stopped. This coming Sunday isn’t just the final round of the U.S. Open. It will mark the five-year anniversary of Woods’ last major-championship win. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
JUNE 16, 2008
Torrey Pines South Course
San Diego, California
Woods’ last major victory, the one that pushes the odometer to 14 and moves him within four of Nicklaus’ all-time record at the age of 32, is the stuff of legend.
If the story had occurred generations ago, it would reek of myth today. Woods underwent knee surgery two months earlier, just two days after finishing a bitterly disappointing second at the Masters. In trying to rehab prior to the U.S. Open, he suffers multiple stress fractures in his left tibia. Doctors recommend that he take some time off, let the injury heal.
Woods replies that he is going to play. “And I’m going to win the U.S. Open.”
It isn’t easy. Groaning and wincing and limping his way around the course, he looks more likely to withdraw from the pain than win the tournament. Instead, Woods redefines an old axiom: Beware the injured golfer. He posts two eagles and a chip-in birdie in his last six holes of the third round. He drains a 15-foot putt on the final hole of regulation one day later to force a playoff. He comes from behind in that playoff to tie Rocco Mediate, then defeats him in sudden death on the 91st hole of the week.
Later, when asked where this victory ranks among his major triumphs, Woods declares, 'I think this is the best, just because of all the things I had to deal with. It's a close one with the first [major] that I won [at the 1997 Masters]. I dealt with a few things this week and just had to keep plugging along. All week I just happened to get off to such slow starts and had to just keep battling back, battle back, battle back, and today was another example of that. It's unbelievable.”
Think back to this day. Remember Woods’ unwillingness to lose, his steadfast resolve in claiming the title. It’s hindsight, sure, but if most observers were asked then to look five years into the future, there’s an excellent chance the majority would have predicted his major championship win total would surpass that of Nicklaus by now.
If you’d been told, five years ago, directly after the greatest win of Woods’ career, that a half-decade later that odometer would still be showing 14, you may not have believed it. Or you may have guessed that a few things had gone horribly wrong.
JULY 20, 2008
Royal Birkdale Golf Club
To the surprise of nobody, Woods’ sudden-death victory at Torrey Pines is the last round he plays all year. His torn ACL requires additional surgery; the stress fractures need time to heal.
Also of little surprise is the fact that Woods doesn’t regret anything. When asked, he maintains that he’d do it all over again. His only regret is not being able to compete at the year’s final two majors on a pair of courses which suit his game.
“Being laid up here and watching it on TV is really no fun. But those are the cards right now, and I just have to deal with it,” he says. “As far as missing the major championships, it is disappointing, yes. … Just had some good feelings going into those two major championships, two venues that I liked. And not to be able to go, it is frustrating.”
Time since last major: 1 month, 4 days
AUG. 10, 2008
Oakland Hills Country Club
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
It is a perfectly ridiculous notion, but just the fact that such an idea was even hatched should speak volumes about Woods’ individual dominance.
In the wake of Padraig Harrington’s second major title in less than a month, there are many who suggest that each of those wins be outfitted with an asterisk. That’s right – an asterisk, to denote that somehow his victories were less worthy because one fewer player was in each of these fields.
Again, it’s ridiculous. And yet, in a way, it almost makes sense, too.
Time since last major: 1 month, 25 days
APRIL 12, 2009
Augusta National Golf Club
When asked about the rehabilitation process to come back from his injuries, Woods offers the following recommendation: “Don’t go through it. It is not a lot of fun.”
It takes more than eight full months, but he returns to competition at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship – and it was as if he’d never left. Woods opens birdie-eagle to win his first match against Brendan Jones and though he is bounced one day later by Tim Clark, it is apparent that Woods is no longer hampered by these injuries.
Well, for now, at least.
Two weeks later, Woods ties for ninth at the WGC-CA Championship and two weeks after that – in what would become a recurring theme throughout the 2009 season – he wins the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his final start before the year’s first major.
“This feels like we hadn't left,” he explains after sinking a dramatic 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole. “You can understand sometimes when some of the older players haven't been in contention in a while and they come back and then all of a sudden they put themselves in contention and then they win. You just remember how to do it. It hasn't been that long for me, but you just have that feel of what to do and it's a matter of getting it done.”
After opening 70-72-70 at the Masters, Woods is paired with rival Phil Mickelson for the final 18 holes, each man with a chance to win yet another green jacket. Even the most casual of fans knows that Woods’ 14 major titles have all come with at least a share of the 54-hole lead; that, of course, also means that he’s never won in come-from-behind fashion.
This could have been the first time. The game’s two most polarizing figures of this era trade haymakers throughout the day, much to the delight of the Augusta galleries, which roar with delight amongst the tall pines.
“I was just terrible,” Woods says afterward. “I don’t know what was going on. It was just frustrating.”
Time since last major: 9 months, 27 days
JUNE 22, 2009
Bethpage State Park Black Course
Farmingdale, New York
For the second straight time, Woods wins in his final start before a major championship, posting a closing 65 to claim the Memorial Tournament title. As if he needs more good vibes entering the U.S. Open, they come in the form of the menacing Black Course, which he had tamed in victory seven years earlier.
This time it is Mother Nature who proves to be the most menacing variable. The tournament delayed because of multiple rainstorms, Woods completes just six holes in a downpour Thursday morning, then returns the next day only to card a double bogey and two bogeys in his last four holes, posting a 4-over 74 that leaves him 10 strokes off the lead as fellow competitors flourish on the other side of the draw.
He never recovers. Scores of 69-68-69 aren’t enough to overcome the sluggish start. Lucas Glover wins, while Woods is left only to wonder how a better opening-round finish could have changed things later on.
Time since last major: 1 year, 6 days
JULY 19, 2009
Turnberry Ailsa Course
Make it three out of three. That would be three wins in three final starts before a major.
While the first two at least lead to title contention, Woods’ triumph at the AT&T National fails to have a similar effect at The Open Championship. An opening-round 71 dissolves into a second-round 74, leaving him one stroke shy of the cut line. It is just his second major missed cut as a professional; the first came at the 2006 U.S. Open, his initial start after the death of his father. This time, there is no such excuse.
“It was just problem after problem,” he says. “I kept compounding my problems out there.”
If there was a saving grace, it comes in the form of 59-year-old Tom Watson finding the leaderboard and tilting the focus off Woods.
By the time Watson loses in a playoff to Stewart Cink two days later, Woods’ struggles are long forgotten.
Time since last major: 1 year, 1 month, 3 days
AUG. 16, 2009
Hazeltine National Golf Club
Call it the Premature Slam. With a victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational that features matching 65s on the weekend, Woods earns the dubious distinction of winning in his last start before each of the four majors.
“I’ll celebrate quickly,” he says after the win in Akron, Ohio, then jets to Hazeltine for a practice round the next day.
It proves to be a solid strategy. Woods takes sole possession of a one-stroke lead with an opening 67, then extends it to four with a second-round 70. Even though a 71 on Saturday cuts that differential in half, the final round still has the feel of a Sunday coronation, that inevitable 15th major now easily within Woods’ sights.
Instead, it is a day for history.
Woods was previously 14 for 14 when holding at least a share of a 54-hole major lead. Enter Y.E. Yang, a little-known Korea native who three years earlier held off Woods at the HSBC Champions event.
The final round turns into an old-fashioned duel. We’d seen this story before. Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship. Chris DiMarco at the 2005 Masters. Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open. In each instance, the story ended the same – with Woods being crowned the champion.
This one would be different. Woods loses the lead with a bogey on the eighth hole. Regains it with a birdie on 11. Loses it again on 12. When Yang’s chip-in eagle betters Woods’ birdie on 14, the challenger finally takes control. When his hybrid on the final hole lands safely on the green, Yang cements his place as golf’s answer to Buster Douglas.
As for Woods, it’s another opportunity lost.
“I played well enough the entire week to win the championship,” he says. “I hit the ball great off the tee, hit my irons well. I did everything I needed to do except for getting the ball in the hole. You have to make putts. I didn’t do that.”
Injuries. Close calls. A loss after leading late. It seems like things can’t get any worse. But as we’ll soon find out, this is only the beginning.
Result: Solo 2nd
Time since last major: 1 year, 2 months
APRIL 11, 2010
Augusta National Golf Club
The eight months between the last major of 2009 and the first of 2010 constitute the most tumultuous period of Woods’ life. And even that is a gross understatement.
With tabloids already circulating rumors about the married Woods having an affair, he is involved in a one-car accident in front of his Windermere, Fla., home on Thanksgiving night. He’s taken to a nearby hospital and treated for injuries. Within days, reports of more affairs surface.
The days turn into weeks; the weeks turn into months. Woods doesn’t show his face publicly. He checks into a rehabilitation center for sex addiction. The man who has conducted a lifelong pursuit of Nicklaus’ all-time records is derailed neither by a bum knee nor by fellow competitors. The undoing is all his own.
When he finally speaks to the masses, a solemn Woods addresses a small contingent at the Sawgrass Marriott, just next to PGA Tour headquarters, offering a prepared speech that includes a mea culpa for his actions. This is February, three months removed from the accident, and he still hasn’t committed to play any competitive golf.
It isn’t until March 16 that he announces his first event post-scandal will come at the Masters. As he may have guessed, it isn’t such a happy return.
“He became an example to our kids that success is directly attributable to hard work and effort,” Masters chairman Billy Payne says prior to the event’s start. 'But as he now says himself, he forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility.
“It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.”
Considering these words – and the disapproving glares from all points worldwide – it is a testament to Woods’ focus that he opens with a 4-under 68, the lowest opening round of his Masters career, and acquits himself well in a share of fourth place. While it is Mickelson who pulls on the green jacket for a third time, Woods’ return suggests it won’t be long until his next major victory.
Time since last major: 1 year, 9 months, 26 days
JUNE 20, 2010
Pebble Beach Golf Links
Pebble Beach, California
In the few tournaments since his return, Woods has yet to thrill galleries with one of his patented charges up the leaderboard. He has yet to make the tiny hairs stand up on the back of thousands of necks, yet to provide goosebumps for fans watching from the comfort of their living rooms.
That changes on Saturday at the U.S. Open. Woods plays the final 15 holes in 7 under, including a majestic 3-wood from 260 yards into the final green that comes to rest some 12 feet from the hole. He ends the day five strokes off the lead, but trailing only two players, fueling the question: Will this finally be his first come-from-behind major win?
It doesn’t take long for that query to be answered in the negative. On a brutally difficult day at the famed course, Woods struggles early and never makes a serious run at eventual champion Graeme McDowell. Still, he leaves 17-Mile Drive with reason for optimism.
“I feel like I can play now,” he explains. “I’ve got a feel for my game, the shape of my shots, what I'm working on, and the two major championships I finished, I had a chance to win both of them. So it's not too bad.”
Time since last major: 2 years, 4 days
JULY 18, 2010
Old Course at St. Andrews
Horses for courses, the old saying goes. Just as Pebble Beach seemed custom-built for Woods before he failed to win again there one month earlier, the Old Course has similarly always suited his eye.
Woods won on the vaunted grounds in both 2000 and 2005 and this time is looking to make it a threepeat at St. Andrews.
Other than his two fourth-place finishes at the majors, though, Woods’ game has appeared rather ordinary. He arrives at the home of golf fresh off a T-46 result at his own AT&T National and his performance doesn’t improve much on the ride overseas.
Though an opening 67 shows promise, Woods fails to break par in the three subsequent rounds, as steady Louis Oosthuizen laps the field in a way only Tiger had done over the past decade.
Time since last major: 2 years, 1 month, 2 days
AUG. 15, 2010
Whistling Straits, Straits Course
If there is a tipping point for Woods’ struggles post-scandal – a finite time when the pressure and the stress and the emotion becomes too much for him to overcome – it is the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
One week prior to the year’s final major, on a Firestone Country Club course where he’d won seven times already, Woods posts scores of 74-72-75-77 to finish T-78 in the 80-man field. He looks tired, he looks frustrated, he looks defeated.
It should come as little surprise that his results at Whistling Straits aren’t much better. While his game improves over the last few months of the year, Woods fails to win a single tournament for the first time since turning professional in 1996. It is, without a doubt, the most disappointing year of his career. Until the next one.
Time since last major: 2 years, 1 month, 30 days
APRIL 10, 2011
Augusta National Golf Club
In addition to his 18 major titles, Nicklaus famously owns 19 major runners-up, too. It’s a record that Woods – nor perhaps anybody else – will ever break, though one which most players would just as soon leave to the Golden Bear.
Woods is not without his share of close calls, though. Another comes here at Augusta in search of his elusive fifth title. After a third-round 74 drops him seven shots off the lead, he mounts a final-round rally. Woods shoots 31 on the front nine, culminating with an eagle at the ninth hole to gain a share of the lead. On the back, though, he misses a short par attempt at 12 and another short eagle attempt at 15. In one of the wilder closing rounds in tournament history, it’s Charl Schwartzel who lands atop the leaderboard when the dust settles.
“Hey, I gave it a run,” he says a few weeks later. “It was fun because I hit the ball the way I know I could on the weekend and [if I] just made a few more putts and less three-putts, [that] would have been good.”
The result leaves him optimistic, but it’s the aftermath of a third-round swing from under a tree which makes the most impact, leaving him sidelined with a strained knee and ailing Achilles.
Time since last major: 2 years, 9 months, 25 days
JUNE 19, 2011
Congressional Country Club, Blue Course
For 15 years, we’ve waited for Woods’ rival to emerge. Phil Mickelson could only play second fiddle. Sergio Garcia wasn’t up to the task. Ernie Els and Vijay Singh were Hall of Fame talents, but not on the same level.
Call it bad timing that when a rival finally may have emerged, he did so with Woods nowhere in sight.
After calling it quits following a front-nine 42 at The Players Championship because of those injuries suffered at the Masters, Woods does not try to play the U.S. Open. He does not defy doctor’s orders. He does not reply, “And I’m going to win the U.S. Open.”
In his absence, Rory McIlroy – all of 22 years of age – steals the show, winning the U.S. Open the way Woods used to win ’em, prevailing by eight strokes. A rival may have emerged, but now it’s Woods who needs to reemerge.
Time since last major: 3 years, 3 days
JULY 17, 2011
Royal St. George’s Golf Club
The longest Nicklaus ever went between major victories was just over six years, from his 1980 U.S. Open title to his improbable, historic Masters triumph in 1986 at the age of 46. In his prime, though, in the years starting with his first major in 1962, the longest major drought of his career was three years, 24 days, which took place during 1967-70.
When Woods elects to sit out his second consecutive major, missing the festivities at Royal St. George’s, he tops that drought dating back to his last major win in 2008.
Whereas previously optimism had reigned, now there is only lingering doubt as to when he will be healthy enough to win again.
Time since last major: 3 years, 1 month, 1 day
AUG. 14, 2011
Atlanta Athletic Club, Highlands Course
Johns Creek, Georgia
After just nine competitive holes of golf in four months, Woods returns at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, one week before the year’s final major. The result is not the T-78 of a year earlier, but it’s hardly an eighth career win at the event, either. Instead, the finishes T-37, leaving even more doubt going into the PGA.
At this point, it’s not only the injuries which are stalling his game; that’s just part of a larger cycle. The injuries force him to practice less; practicing less keeps him from working on swing changes with instructor Sean Foley; not being able to incorporate those swing changes leaves him without confidence in his swing; that lack of confidence impairs his game; with the game suffering, it shows on the scorecard and in the results table.
He can’t break that cycle this week, either. Woods shoots an opening-round 77 and misses yet another cut at a major. As if to only further the notion of an evolving game, a rookie named Keegan Bradley wins the tournament, the first-ever player to claim a major while brandishing an anchored putter.
This is a lost year for Woods, beset by injuries and struggles with his swing. If there is a glimmer of a silver lining to this otherwise dark cloud, though, it comes four months later. Finally appearing healthy and comfortable, the former No. 1, who had dropped as low as 58th in the world, wins his own 18-man Chevron World Challenge by posting birdies on each of the final two holes. Though unofficial, it is his first victory in 26 total starts, spanning more than two full years.
Time since last major: 3 years, 1 month, 29 days
APRIL 8, 2012
Augusta National Golf Club
The most asked question in golf – “Will Tiger break Jack’s record?” – has been replaced by another, albeit related, query about Woods’ future.
“Is Tiger back?”
Talking heads volley the question back and forth ad nauseam. Fans debate the issue at 19th holes around the world. Woods himself, though, won’t get caught up in the rhetoric. He finishes T-3 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship; T-15 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am; T-17 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship; and T-2 at the Honda Classic before withdrawing halfway through his final round at the WGC-CA Championship with lingering discomfort in that left Achilles again. Any thought that this is a precursor to another season like 2011 quickly erodes, however, as two weeks later Woods prevails at the Arnold Palmer Invitational – his first official PGA Tour win since claiming the BMW Championship in September 2009.
“I think it was just a process,” he says, repeating words he’s offered a thousand times before. “I've been putting together two good rounds, eventually three, and now four; so just had to keep sticking with it and getting more experience working with Sean. You know, this year you can see the numbers. End of last year and most of this year, I've been in contention. I'm just continuing the process.”
That process continues at the Masters, but certainly doesn’t advance. He fails to break par in any round, posting his worst finish at the event as a pro. Clearly, his frustrations are visibly evident throughout the tournament. If there is a lasting image of Woods this week, it’s from the 16th tee during Saturday’s third round, when he drops his 9-iron to ground after impact, then kicks it backward some 10 yards.
Time since last major: 3 years, 9 months, 23 days
JUNE 17, 2012
The Olympic Club, Lake Course
San Francisco, California
In what is becoming a trend that is swiftly gaining more skepticism than optimism, Woods wins in his final start before a major for the sixth time in the past four seasons, claiming The Memorial Tournament thanks in part to a holed flop shot from behind the 16th green on Sunday.
While he continues to pursue Nicklaus’ major-championship record, he catches him elsewhere. The victory gives Woods 73 career PGA Tour wins, equal to that of his boyhood idol.
At the U.S. Open, he appears ready to pass Nicklaus in one category while inching closer in another. Woods opens with scores of 69-70 to share the 36-hole lead, but moving day finds him moving in the wrong direction. His third-round 75 is followed by a 6-over start in his first six holes on Sunday, essentially eliminating him from contention.
Still, he maintains that this was not an opportunity lost.
“Well, you can say that about a lot of tournaments,” he contends. “Finished close in major championships before, so I had a chance this week, and I’ll get after it in another week in D.C.”
Time since last major: 4 years, 1 day
JULY 22, 2012
Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club
Lytham St. Annes, England
Woods does indeed “get after it” in D.C., winning the AT&T National, only to miss the cut at The Greenbrier Classic one week later.
His arrival in Lytham looks eerily similar to that at The Olympic Club one month earlier. Woods gets off to a hot start, posting scores of 67 in each of the first two rounds to find himself in third place entering the weekend. This time he remains in contention after a third-round 70, but his bid for a 15th major is thwarted on the sixth hole in Sunday’s final round.
With his ball resting close to a steep lip in a greenside bunker, Woods tries to pull off a heroic shot, but can’t extricate his ball from the sand. He’s forced to play the next shot from his knees and can only find the front portion of the green.
From there, he three-putts. The end result is a triple bogey. He loses the tournament by four.
Time since last major: 4 years, 1 month, 6 days
AUG. 12, 2012
Kiawah Island, Ocean Course
Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Woods gets off to a strong start at a major championship, shares the lead going into the weekend, then falls well off the pace.
If there were a model for Woods’ 14 major championships – all 14 won as a frontrunner – it was that he’d get off to a hot start, then simply tread water as his fellow competitors drowned in a cold pool of increasing pressure.
If there is a model for Woods’ major performances since that 14th, it’s that those hot starts are still readily possible, but now it’s him who is drowning in pressure.
Weekend scores of 74-72 leave him outside the top 10, while McIlroy – looking perfectly Woods-like again – earns himself another eight-shot triumph.
Time since last major: 4 years, 1 month, 27 days
APRIL 14, 2013
Augusta National Golf Club
Despite three wins in his first five PGA Tour starts, that lingering question remains: “Is Tiger back?”
Many observers point to this trio of victories in the year’s first three months – already equaling last year’s total – and scoff at the query’s insinuation. Others, though, contend that Woods’ empire was built on major titles, not pithy PGA Tour trophies that are handed out every week. It’s for this latter group that he needs to win another big one, to somehow prove that he’s the same Woods who owned 14 of ’em before his 33rd birthday.
There’s another lingering question, too. No longer do Woods’ prospects circulate around making the cut or contending or even his chances of winning. No, we’ve reverted to a question asked years ago when trying to prognosticate an upcoming champion.
“Tiger or the field?”
The question alone is either the highest compliment to Woods or the lowest slap in the face of his competition, but the answer on this week is undeniably “The field.”
While Woods fares well enough for yet another top-five – his 31st career top-five finish at a major – he never seriously contends down the stretch, finishing four shots out of a playoff. Instead, it’s Adam Scott, employing Woods’ old swing and former caddie, who claims his first Masters title.
“You're not going to play well every week,” Woods says. “Unfortunately, it was this week for me. I had the wrong ball-striking week at the wrong time. You know, just got to keep building, keep working and keep progressing.”
This has been a major theme for years. It continues on.
Time since last major: 4 years, 9 months, 29 days
JUNE 16, 2013
Merion Golf Club, East Course
At 6,996 yards on the scorecard, Merion will serve as the shortest major-championship venue in nine years. Some believe this is advantageous to Woods, because it will allow him to keep driver in the bag; others believe this is disadvantageous, because the lack of length could level the playing field, producing a greater spectrum of contenders.
The truth is, when you’re Tiger Woods, every golf course in the world – from an 8,000-yard behemoth to a playful pitch 'n’ putt – should suit your game.
But there’s more to winning than simply hitting great shots and making putts. As Bobby Jones once famously said: “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course – the space between your ears.”
Woods is not only contending with 155 other competitors; he is not only contending with the wind and terrain and other variables on the course. He is contending with history. He is contending with the burden of trying to unseat the all-time record holder, while also facing the burden of his past. As he chases Nicklaus, he also chases himself – the man who won 14 major championships, but hasn’t won one in so long.
Asked after the recent Masters whether he is trying too hard to win again, Woods hems and haws, offering the following quixotic response: “No. I would like to say yes is the easy answer. But I know it's not, unfortunately.”
Sunday’s final round will be the exact five-year anniversary of Woods’ last major title. Think back to that day. Remember his unwillingness to lose, his steadfast resolve in claiming the title. We never would have considered that five years later, he is still searching for that encore.
Time since last major: 5 years