He’s golf’s youngest ever Grand Slam winner and has spent more time at the top of the sport’s rankings than any player in history. But it’s five years since he was golf’s best player and a lot’s happened since then – Brexit, Trump, Harvey, Grenfell, Greta and lots more – especially to Tiger.
Dogged by scandal and ravaged by injury, Tiger looked finished until he won his first title in over five years at the 2018 Tour Championship. He followed that up with a 2019 Masters Tournament win and now he’s back.
Despite getting back into the winning habit, the one that honour that would taste sweetest will be getting back to the top of golf’s rankings. Why? Because, as you’ll discover, being the best changes the conversation around you.
Once upon a time, there was an exceptional college golf player, one so good that all the top schools in the land wanted him. That boy became a man and when he did, his skills took him to the peak of his sport’s ranking. And he stayed there for a damn long time – so long that he chalked up a decade’s worth of weeks as golf’s number one player.
And when he was the top-ranked golfer, Tiger was truly the best. He hoovered up Majors like they were insolent crumbs clogging up his expensive rug. He was just 32 when he won his fourteenth major, the 2008 US Open, and at that time we thought his number one status would be a neverending story. But, as Lionel Hutz came to realise, even The Neverending Story ends.
It seems a long time ago now that Tiger Woods was indisputably golf’s finest, longer still since he first climbed the mountain. And that’s because it is – it’s over 20 years since he first went to the top of golf’s rankings. Now, those memories have become sepia-tinged and there are pros who have never competed against him as their sport’s best.
Tiger’s fall from grace began when he was still at the top of the rankings. Indeed, it took close to a year for his fall to be translated into a drop in his place at golf’s peak. The event that precipitated his fall was a 25 November 2009 story in National Enquirer, one that shamed Tiger as an adulterer.
Two days after the National Enquirer’s story broke, Tiger crashed at the wheel while driving near to his home. Before the year was out, numerous women had come forward to say they’d also had an affair with Tiger and he’d made a statement saying he was taking “an indefinite break from professional golf.” He was still number one in the world.
While the scandals that rained down on Tiger in 2009 began his fall from grace, they weren’t the only factors in his drop down the rankings – after all, he went back to number one in March 2013 and stayed there for over a year. What really usurped was the combination of mental strain and physical wane.
Like all sports stars (except Cristiano Ronaldo, who could walk through lava and come out the other side looking tanned) injuries have followed Tiger throughout his career. We shouldn’t forget that he had surgery to remove a benign tumour from his left knee in December 1994, a little under two years before he went pro.
2014 was the year that injuries really began to bite – back problems nearly ended the career of one of the finest athletes of all-time.
In March 2014, Tiger’s back forced him to withdraw from the Honda Classic. The following month he missed the Masters, following a microdiscectomy to tackle a pinched nerve in his back.
It wasn’t until January 2018, with his back held together with spider’s webs and Sellotape, that Tiger’s health began to be as clean as his legendary drives – funnily enough, this is the same year that he got back into the winning habit.
It’s said that there’s nothing as sweet as your first time, that every subsequent experience tastes a little more watered-down, and the pursuit of that golden high is what drives athletes on.
Tiger would show that idea the same affection he does for the balls he drives into the horizon – absolutely none. Because there was surely no victory as sweet for Tiger as the September 2018 Tour Championship.
It had been five years since his last title and he’d dipped to as low as 1,199 in golf’s rankings just a year prior to competing in the Tour Championship. When he made it to the last hole, Tiger had to hold back the tears.
And his Tour Championship win wasn’t a false dawn. In April 2019, he won the Masters Tournament by a single stroke, giving him the fifth green jacket and fifteenth major of his decorated career. Tiger was back and he’d beaten his greatest foe to get back in the winning habit – himself.
Have you been following what I’ve been saying so far? Tiger was a serial champion, the record holder for both the most weeks and most consecutive weeks as golf’s number one player – he was a god.
But let’s make it clear, until Tiger wins the most titles of any player in history, he needs to regain his status as the sport’s greatest player of right now. And why will it be so sweet for Tiger to get back to the top of his sport’s rankings?
This last point is the sugariest of all of them. When he bulldozed his way through tournaments, making second place a victory for his peers and first place a career-high achievement for them, it wasn’t a case of if he would catch The Golden Bear in the al-time major list, it was a question f anyone would ever catch The Tiger after he finally retired..
When Tiger was mired in disarray it looked like all this was lost. Now it’s all ahead of him again and The Tiger has a chance again to turn into The GOAT, and the first step that transition is returning to the top of golf’s rankings.
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