Chapter 6: One-legged wonder
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Tiger dropped the curtain on arguably his greatest period of dominating golf by claiming his most recent major win on just one good leg
Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR
It could be forever be debated, this question of Tiger Woods’ most proficient stretch of golf. Hard to argue against 1999 into 2002, that time when the improbable was probable and four straight major championships were won, the highlight to his stash of 27 wins.
Ah, but for those who lobby for those years with Hank Haney as his swing coach, the 2005-09 time period, it’s hard to say they don’t have a strong case. Not when you factor in 25 wins in just 58 starts, an unheard-of .430 batting average. Crazy.
Narrowing the focus even further, it’s fascinating just to study the 2007-08 seasons, a period of just 22 starts but a gaudy winning percentage of .500. That’s right, he won half of his starts, and the consistency to his play during these two seasons was silly good. He didn’t miss a cut, the longest stretch he went without a victory was five tournaments – and in those weeks he had a T-2, a T-6 and a T-12 – and only twice in 22 tournaments was he outside the top 20.
Of his 11 wins in these seasons, three of them came by eight strokes, while another was by the overwhelming sum of 8 and 7 in a match play finale.
Yet it was the narrowest of victory margins, one that took 19 playoff holes and only got to that point because he twice converted must-make birdies at Torrey Pines’ 18th hole, that defines this brief stretch of superiority. The 2008 U.S. Open remains as his 14th and most recent major triumph and perhaps as the defining stamp to his legacy. He beat the field with one good leg.
Win No. 58: Aug. 5, 2007 – World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational
Tiger Woods wins 2007 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational
Having come up short in a fourth-round pairing with Woods a few months earlier, Rory Sabbatini had expressed hopes for a chance to do it again. Well, he got his wish at Firestone in this WGC, only it didn’t go so well. From one in front to start the fourth round, Sabbatini after nine holes was six behind his incomparable playing partner.
Out in 31 against Sabbatini’s 38, Woods was in cruise control. Sabbatini, meanwhile, tried levity to explain it all. “I hope to inspire him,” he said to reporters, “and play well enough that I can give him a good challenge (next time).”
The view from the group in front of Woods? Justin Rose said he looked up at the turn, shrugged, and said, “I thought, ‘Oh, well, we’re playing for second.’ ”
With a bogey-free 65, Woods for the second time in his career won this WGC three straight years. No wonder Padraig Harrington said before the tournament: “I wouldn’t want to put my career on the line with challenging Tiger this week and being judged on that alone.”
By the Numbers: One of two events in the ShotLink era where Tiger did not miss a putt inside 8 feet all week. He was a perfect 60 for 60 at Firestone CC (South).
Win No. 59: Aug. 13, 2007 – PGA Championship
Tiger Woods wins 2007 PGA Championship
Bogey-free in a second-round 63 to seize the lead at Southern Hills, Woods left his playing competitor, Bob Tway, feeling helpless. “So, we got drilled by him today,” said Tway. “Next time he’ll have to give me a few shots.”
Woods maintained his brilliant play through Round 3 (69) and built a significant lead on unheralded Woody Austin on Sunday, which had reporters wondering about the intimidation factor.
“What, are we going to get in a fight?” said Austin. “I’m not intimidated by any other person. I’m intimidated by the golf.”
Austin did fight back and eventually get within two, but in the end, it was major championship No. 13 and the second time in his career that Woods successfully defended his PGA title.
By the Numbers: Tiger shot 63 in the second round en route to victory, marking his lowest round in a Major championship.
Win No. 60: Sept. 9, 2007 – BMW Championship
“When you see him up ahead making birdies, and hearing the roars, you know that he’s on a roll and not making mistakes,” said Steve Stricker. “It’s tough.”
Make that close to impossible, given the quality of play Woods was delivering week in and week out at this point in his career. Woods’ closing 63, yet another vintage bogey-free effort, kept Aaron Baddeley and Stricker comfortably behind as the magic in the Chicago area continued. It was Woods’ fifth win at Cog Hill, a nice complement to two PGA Championships at nearby Medinah.
Just 13 months earlier, Woods had celebrated his 50th career win and here he was now with 60.
“For the next four years, I’ve got to win 15 a year to catch him,” said Justin Rose, then winless on the PGA TOUR. “That’s pretty good.”
By the Numbers: The BMW Championship is the only event on TOUR where Tiger has four rounds of 63 or better in his career.
Win No. 61: Sept. 16, 2007 – TOUR Championship
Tiger Woods wins THE TOUR Championship 2007 and FedExCup
To shoot a third-round 60 was mighty impressive, but when at the end of 72 holes he was tied for second and a whopping eight shots behind Woods, Zach Johnson sought proper perspective. “The man is a freak of nature,” said Johnson. When told that Woods had won 21 of his last 52 tournaments, or 40.4 percent, Johnson added: “I’ll put it this way, he’s hard to describe.”
Woods’ formula for winning at East Lake was foolproof – he led the field in putting and greens in regulation.
The first FedExCup went easily into Woods’ grasp, which gave Johnson one more reason to quip: “This just makes it even worse for us. Why give him another thing to try and achieve?”
By the Numbers: Tiger led the field with 29 birdies or better marking his best performance in any of his stroke play victories.
Win No. 62: Jan. 27, 2008 – Buick Invitational
Tiger Woods wins the 2008 Buick Invitational
“I’m sure,” said Arnold Palmer, “that there are many, many more coming in the future. There isn’t any question about that.”
Palmer was reacting to Woods pulling even with him on the career victory list – trailing only Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. The latest win was a ho-hum affair with so many old storylines; a fourth straight and sixth overall at Torrey Pines; his ninth career win by eight strokes or more; a four-stroke lead through 36 that pretty much nailed it down.
Old stuff to Woods, but brand new to PGA TOUR rookie Kevin Streelman, who was on the putting green Thursday when “I looked up and boom, (Woods) was right there in front of me.” Admittedly awestruck, Streelman said to himself, “I guess I am on the PGA TOUR.”
In Round 3, Streelman was paired with Woods in the final group. Woods shot 66, Streelman 75. Likely, he realized that being on the PGA TOUR and being in Woods’ stratosphere were not one in the same.
By the Numbers: Tiger became the first player to win two PGA TOUR events four consecutive times.
Win No. 63: Feb. 24, 2008 – WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship
Tiger Woods wins 2008 WGC-Accenture Match Play
Having been totally overmatched against Woods, 8 and 7, in a 36-hole finale, Stewart Cink rebounded beautifully for post-game observations. “He regulates his heartbeat,” he said of Woods, “Physiologically, he’s regulating all the time. I think we ought to slice him open and see what’s inside there.”
Cink thought a moment, then added, “maybe nuts and bolts.”
Woods’ numbers painted a picture of domination; he was 6 under and 4-up through 11 holes and for the week he made 51 birdies in 117 holes to win his 15th World Golf Championship and third Accenture Match Play Championship.
Humbling stuff for Cink to absorb, but his parting shot provided a telling statement.
“He’s a gentleman,” said Cink. “But he’s a killer out there.”
By the Numbers: This marked Tiger's third WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play title, the most of any player at this WGC.
Win No. 64: March 16, 2008 – Arnold Palmer Invitational
Tiger Woods wins 2008 Arnold Palmer Invitational
With a 24-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win for the fifth time at Bay Hill, Woods not only ignited ground-shaking thunder, but a torrent of praise.
“That’s why he’s Tiger Woods,” said playing competitor Bart Bryant, who was beaten by one.
“He always seems to find it on Sunday,” said Woods caddie Steve Williams.
“He will set records that will never be touched,” said Arnold Palmer, the tournament host.
Starting the final day in a five-way tie for first, Woods shot 6-under 66, one better than Bryant, who wasn’t ashamed to say that he loved being part of the show.
“We out here on the TOUR understand the magnitude of what he’s doing,” said Bryant. “But the general public doesn’t get it, to be honest.”
By the Numbers: Tiger recorded back-to-back rounds of 66 on the weekend, joining Payne Stewart (1987) as the only two players to shoot 66 or better in the third & final rounds at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Win No. 65: June 15, 2008 – US Open
Tiger Woods’ 2008 U.S. Open victory revisited
Epic. An instant classic. Unforgettable. Historic.
Woods’ second win at Torrey Pines in 2008 and seventh overall was worth more than his 14th major championship; it was one for the ages. Not just because it required him to make birdie at the par-5 18th at the end of regulation just to get into a playoff, then at the end of regulation to extend into sudden death, but because it was virtually done on one leg.
“Don’t play golf,” Woods said, when asked what his doctor advised him of his sore left knee.
“For a man to endure all that, it’s pretty incredible what he accomplished,” said Kenny Perry.
“I’m playing against a monster,” said Rocco Mediate, who battled Woods to a standstill in an 18-hole Monday playoff, then lost on the first extra hole. “He’s not normal. He’s way above everything.”
Hobbling all week, Woods won the playoff on Monday to cap off his 91-hole U.S. Open, then announced the next day that he would have surgery and was done for the year.
A third U.S. Open win meant Woods equaled a feat that only Jack Nicklaus had reached – at least three victories in each of the professional majors. It also drew the curtain down on a stretch of golf that might have been his very best – from 2005-08 he won 25 of 58 starts, six of them majors.
By the Numbers: This was one of two majors where Tiger has shot over par in final round and gone on to win (2002 US Open).
Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.