Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Tiger Slam, that unique accomplishment where Tiger Woods astonished the world by winning the 2000 U.S. Open, 2000 Open, 2000 PGA Championship and the 2001 Masters in succession. Twenty years is not that long ago. It’s recent enough that the internet was in full force and Golf Channel and other national sports television networks chronicled every minute of the action. Increasingly, the slam has been hailed as the most amazing feat in golf history and one of the greatest ever in all of athletics.
But 20 years is also “that long ago,” and as much as we like to think our memories are flawless, the reality is that they aren’t. Sometimes we need to be reminded.
So, during a coronavirus pandemic that has silenced sports and almost all other entertainment, “remember when” has become a pocket industry. Americans by the millions are reflecting on the life and times of Michael Jordan; wondering again whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead; and now, with the airing of Golf Channel’s documentary on the Tiger Slam on Sunday May 24, recalling the time when Tiger Woods dominated golf like no player before or since.
The Tiger Slam wasn’t a one-off feat of greatness like Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962, Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long jump at the 1968 Olympics, Don Larsen’s World Series perfect game in 1956, or even – to bring us back to golf – Al Geiberger’s milestone 59 in June 1977. The Tiger Slam was a 10-month whirlwind that began in June 2000 with a record 15-stroke victory at the U.S. Open that rivaled the great sports moments mentioned above. It continued through The Open in July with another monumental victory, this time by eight strokes at revered St. Andrews. The pace quickened in August with a tight favorite-vs.-underdog competition at the PGA Championship culminating in a playoff that Woods won over Bob May, an unsung journeyman who was once so good at his game that a young Tiger considered him a legend. Finally, after eight months, letting the public anticipation percolate into a fine froth, a win for the ages at the 2001 Masters in April.
Woods’ slam changed golf. It changed the way it was watched, the way it was reported and the way it was played. As much as Jordan, Jim Brown or Richard Petty wowed their fans, they didn’t change the fundamental way their sport was contested.
Golf in the early 2000s was coming to terms with the power game. Exceptionally long hitters weren’t a novelty when Woods came along as players like John Daly were breaking driving distance records with regularity in the 1990s. But until Woods, no player combined the power game with every other aspect of golf to produce record-breaking scores. Long drives off the tee led to shorter approach shots with more controllable short irons or wedges, clubs with which Woods excelled. Combined with a putting stroke that seemed to defy the yips – did he ever miss an important putt? – Woods was the complete package.
The game took notice and evolved. Tiger-proofing became a thing, as courses were altered – usually with added length – to protect par. You had to go back 80 years to find another athlete who altered the way his game was played to the extent that Woods did.
Babe Ruth played his first season with the New York Yankees in 1920. The former Boston Red Sox pitcher was now a full-time outfielder and began hitting home runs at a never-before-seen pace. Ruth hit his 30th round-tripper on July 19, breaking the single-season record he set one year earlier. For the next two months people were infatuated with the box scores. Ruth ended the season with 54 home runs, breaking his old record by 25. He hit more home runs than any other team in the American League that season. Baseball was transitioning from the small-ball era as players and teams began to understand the power of the home run and Ruth began to transcend his sport, leading the game – which was less than a year removed from a major gambling scandal – to unprecedented heights.
Woods did the same for golf. Bobby Jones once said that Jack Nicklaus was playing a game of which he was not familiar. What would Jones have thought of Woods?
How unfamiliar was the Tiger Slam? As modern golf moments go, you can forget Ben Hogan in 1953, Byron Nelson in 1945 or Geiberger’s 59. The Tiger Slam was bigger. Hogan didn’t win four professional majors in a row; Nelson won many of his 11 consecutive victories against subpar competition; and Geiberger’s record round was a remarkable one-day blip. What Woods did out-shined them all, and the numbers still tell the story.
Woods won the four major championships by a combined total of 25 strokes (counting the playoff win in the PGA Championship as a zero-stroke victory). In the 17 majors held after the 2001 Masters, the combined winning margin was 22 strokes. Woods did in four majors what the rest of the winners couldn’t accomplish in four years.
Tiger’s 15-stroke win in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was akin to Beamon breaking the long jump record by an incredible 21 inches in Mexico City or Secretariat’s whopping 31-length victory at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. The previous biggest margin of victory in a men’s golf major was 13 strokes by Old Tom Morris. That happened in 1862, when the field at The Open was eight players deep. That’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison.
As if winning by 15 wasn’t enough, Tiger won the 2000 Open by eight strokes. It was an early version of physical distancing, marking the first time since Hogan won the 1953 Masters and U.S. Open by five and six shots, respectively, that a golfer won consecutive majors by five strokes or more.
When Woods and May tied at 18-under in the 2000 PGA Championship, they were five strokes better than the rest of the field. May, a junior golf legend in California whose progress Woods monitored as a child, played gallantly all week before losing in a playoff.
Finally, at the Masters, Tiger won by a pedestrian two strokes over David Duval. It was a far cry from the way he started the slam, but Woods won the four majors by an average of 6.25 strokes.
Woods was 65 under par during the Tiger Slam. Golf Channel’s editorial research unit crunched the numbers and found that the next best total belonged to Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, who were both a combined 20 under par during the four majors. During the biggest competitions against the best players, Woods was 45 strokes better than any other player in golf!
During that stretch, Woods had 13 rounds in the 60s; no one else had more than six. Tiger made 91 birdies, 22 more birdies than his nearest competitor.
Woods won nine times during his record-breaking 2000 season on the PGA Tour. He won all sorts of athlete of the year and sportsman of the year awards. He led the Tour in scoring in the first, second and third rounds*; the front nine; the back nine; and on par-3, par-4 and par-5 holes.
*The PGA Tour stat database lists Perry Moss ahead of Woods in final-round scoring that season, a statistical anomaly that cannot go unmentioned, not only because Moss played just one more time on the PGA Tour after the 2000 season, but also because Moss only made six cuts that year, and was fortunate enough to shoot in the 60s in five of them. His average of 68.3 barely topped Woods mark of 68.4.
Woods also led the Tour in earnings, greens in regulation, eagles per hole, birdies per round, and all-around rank. In its annual newsmakers issue that December, Golf World magazine polled several world-renowned journalists asking if Tiger’s 2000 season was the most outstanding year ever by an athlete.
Some panelists voted no – Dave Anderson of the New York Times, for example, mentioned Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 and Wayne Gretzky’s 212-point season in 1981-82. Dan Jenkins said Tiger didn’t do more than tie Hogan in ’53 (Hogan didn’t have an opportunity to compete in both The Open and the PGA that year because of scheduling).
But others were in Tiger’s camp. George Plimpton said, “Don Budge’s and Rod Laver’s grand slams could be considered comparable because they were also individual achievements, but I can’t think of anything greater. Nothing’s close.” David Halberstam said, “It’s hard to imagine anyone having a better season in any sport.”
High praise, indeed. But like Jordan, who improved upon his scoring average in the NBA playoffs, Woods rose to the occasion on the biggest stages. His statistics in the four majors during the Tiger Slam were better than they were when was he was setting Tour records in 2000. Woods led the PGA Tour with 4.92 birdies per round and by hitting 75.15 percent of his greens in regulation. His non-adjusted scoring average during 2000 was 68.17. All those marks are PGA Tour records that stand to this day. He outperformed those numbers during his four major victories during the Tiger Slam.
* Indicates PGA Tour single-season record
Woods led the field in driving distance and greens in regulation in all four majors during the Tiger Slam. He had 13 straight rounds under par from the fourth round of the 2000 U.S. Open through the fourth round of 2001 Masters.
After Woods completed the Tiger Slam, columnist Bob Verdi, writing in Golf World, compared Tiger to Jordan and Nicklaus, adding, “not even Jack won four of these in a row.” You must wonder, then, if the magazine asked their question of the previous December to Anderson or Jenkins after the 2001 Masters, would they have changed their answer to “yes.”
In 2000, Woods was so dominant in the majors that he was setting scoring records almost every time he played golf. His 12-under mark at the U.S. Open, 19-under total at The Open, and 18-under score at the PGA Championship (matched by May), were all tournament records. That meant Woods held the 72-hole scoring mark at all four majors at the same time (he broke the Masters record in 1997, at 18 under).
That would be akin to a baseball player hitting .440 with 74 homers and 192 runs batted in, setting single-season marks in all three stats. Or an NFL player rushing for 300 yards in one game and catching passes for 350 yards the next.
Remember we said that Woods’ total score in regulation in his four wins was 65 under par? Brooks Koepka, whose major performance over the past few years has evoked memories of Woods, is only 52 under par in his last five majors (two wins, two runner-ups and a T-4). The winning score by all four major winners in 2019 was 49 under par. Only once since the Tiger Slam has the winning score in four consecutive majors come within five strokes of Tiger’s total, that when Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, and Jordan Spieth won the majors from the 2014 U.S. Open to the 2015 Masters with a total score of 60 under par.
Woods’ phenomenal greens in regulation statistics during his four victories deserve another look.
Woods hit 51 greens at the 2000 U.S. Open, most in the field. He hit 66 greens in regulation at The Open at St. Andrews, and 60 in each of the 2000 PGA and the 2001 Masters. In one seven-round stretch from Sunday at the U.S. Open through round two of the PGA Championship, Woods hit 90 percent of the greens in regulation.
*Tiger set the PGA Tour single-season record by hitting 75.15% of GIR in 2000.
During the Tiger Slam, Woods hit 82% of his greens in regulation. Among those who completed all 16 major championship rounds in this span, only one other player hit 70 percent of his greens in regulation.
By hitting all those greens, Woods basically took bogey out of the equation. In the four majors he made just 23 bogeys or worse. How good is that? Justin Leonard was second in fewest bogeys for players who played in all 16 rounds. He had 41 holes over par, 18 more than Woods.
After Woods won the 2001 Masters, the numbers were mind-boggling and hard to fully comprehend.
The New York Times called it a “landmark victory” and compared the feat to DiMaggio’s hitting streak in 1941 and Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics. The Baltimore Sun said Woods was creating “the same kind of legend” as Jordan, and a column in the Los Angeles Times lauded his feats as “Ruthian.”
Butch Harman, Tiger’s coach at the time, knew it was an important achievement, but he didn’t know what to call it. “What this is,” Harman said, “is something no one who has walked this planet has ever done before.” Sam Snead called it “the greatest feat in modern golf.”
Because the four victories didn’t come in the same calendar year, no one called it a Grand Slam.
It could have been – to paraphrase New York sportswriter George Trevor’s description of Bobby Jones’ 1930 slam comprising of wins in two professional majors and two amateur ones – an Asymmetrical Impregnable Quadrilateral. But that would be too long for headlines.
Instead it was left to Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, who told Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated. “When a scientist discovers a star, he gets his name on it. Nobody’s ever done this before, so Tiger should get his name on it.”
So let it be done.