BETHPAGE – Tiger Woods pondered 20 years ago if he was destined to be a one-major wonder, but the reigning Masters champion remains golf’s biggest star despite an epic fall from grace.
Woods, who ended an 11-year major win drought last month at Augusta National, competes for a 16th major title starting on Thursday at the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.
The 43-year-old American could match the all-time US PGA record of 82 wins set by Sam Snead, and return to the world number one ranking for the first time since March 2013.
“It’s great to be part of the narrative,” Woods said. “My narrative spans 20 years now... You’re measured in decades. Because of the nature of the sport, we’re able to hang around a lot longer and still be relevant.”
Woods won his first major at the 1997 Masters, but his second came at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, when he held off Spanish teen upstart Sergio Garcia and launched a run of seven wins in 11 majors, including the ‘Tiger Slam’ of four in a row in 2000-2001.
“That was a big moment because at the time, I’d won one major by 12 shots and hadn’t won since then, and it was a big deal to get a second major championship and get the numbers to start to accrue,” Woods said.
“To be able to hang in there and somehow get that done, it just helped keep the momentum going from 97 and then not winning anything in 98.
“It just started the momentum, and you can see what happens in 2000, 2001 and 2002. But 99 was a big moment to kick-start all that transpired.”
And what a journey it has been. Woods appeared destined to break the record of 18 major wins set by Jack Nicklaus after collecting his 14th at the 2008 US Open, despite playing Torrey Pines on a broken left leg.
But he lost his first major when ahead after 54 holes to South Korean Yang Yong-eun at the 2009 PGA.
Three months later, the revelation of a sex scandal led to divorce, while knee and back injuries took a toll on his game. Woods feared he might never life a normal life due to back pain, until 2017 spinal fusion surgery allowed him to return to golf.
In 2018, he won the Tour Championship and contended in two majors, and last month he took a fifth green jacket at the Masters.
“Anything post these back surgeries is a bonus,” four-time major winner Rory McIlroy said of Woods.
“I still don’t think people understand what he did in April, and coming back and with everything that he’s been through. It’s unbelievable.
“Whether it’s the greatest comeback in sports, that’s probably up for debate.
“But from what I’ve experienced and the things that he said when I’ve been around him, to be two-and-a-half years ago from looking like maybe not playing golf again to winning the first major of the year, and being the favourite going into the second, that’s unbelievable.”
Sixth-ranked Woods tees off on Thursday alongside British Open champion Francesco Molinari of Italy and defending champion Brooks Koepka, who seeks a third consecutive US Open title next month at Pebble Beach.
McIlroy, Koepka, England’s Justin Rose and Woods all have a chance to overtake American Dustin Johnson for the world number one ranking.
Woods is finding a new path to success in his second act, as Irish three-time major winner Padraig Harrington noticed.
“He’s more comfortable with who he is at the moment. He has probably found a better balance to his golfing life,” Harrington said.
“His game looks solid. He’s hitting lots of greens in regulation.
“At Augusta, he closed it out. He just was interested in getting the job done. That’s a tough Tiger to beat when he’s in that frame of mind.”
The best total scores relative to par among those to play in the last four majors: Brooks Koepka (-25), Tiger Woods (-22), Francesco Molinari (-17), Xander Schauffele (-16) and Webb Simpson (-14). pic.twitter.com/2HcsRX7RkX— PGA Championship (@PGAChampionship) May 15, 2019
Getting a second chance at stardom after nearly losing it has Woods in a perfect situation, McIlroy said.
“He’s in a different space in his life, and he just seems very grateful for this opportunity to do what he loves and compete,” McIlroy said.
“When you’re in that headspace, where you’re just thankful to be out there, good things happen, and good things have started to happen for him.”