Chapter 4: World domination
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Tiger’s dominance in World Golf Championships events becomes a resource for many of his wins
Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR
To say Tiger Woods had a wide swath when it came to a comfort zone would be a massive understatement. Favorite courses for sure fit his eye, as they say, and the major championships were never a mystery to him. But where Woods might have been his most comfortable was when the World Golf Championship umbrellas went up.
These global events came into existence in Woods’ third full season and while he didn’t win the first one, that soon changed. Arguably, this nearly three-year stretch from June of 2001 to February of 2004 was a WGC goldmine for Woods as he won five of the nine played, including a pair of Match Play championships at LaCosta, as well as the American Express on both sides of the Atlantic.
Win No. 28: June 3, 2001 – The Memorial
Tiger Woods wins 2001 Memorial Tournament
Leading by one through 54 holes at Muirfield Village, Paul Azinger finished second, a whopping seven back. That’s what happens when you shoot 74 to Woods’ 66.
“Sorry I wasn’t a better player for you today,” Azinger said to his Sunday playing competitor.
“Thank you,” smiled Woods, who was called sport’s most dominant athlete by Azinger.
As he handed over his tournament’s winning check to the same guy for a third straight year, Jack Nicklaus did not call Azinger wrong. “I don’t know about history,” he said, “but certainly, since I’ve been playing the sport, I’ve never found anybody who has dominated anything more.”
By the Numbers: This win marked Tiger's fifth time winning by seven or more strokes and was his third consecutive victory at this event.
Win No. 29: Aug. 26, 2001 – WGC-NEC Invitational
Tiger Woods winning approach at the 2001 NEC Invitational
Their head-to-head final 18 holes at Firestone lasted more than four hours. When that wasn’t enough to settle things, Woods and Jim Furyk went two more hours and seven playoff holes. “I don’t feel like I let anyone down,” said Furyk, who watched Woods stiff his approach to 2 feet on his fifth visit to the 18th green – once in regulation, four times in the playoff.
Much was made of Woods trying Jack Nicklaus’ mark for the most wins, 29, by a player in his 20s. Thing is, Woods got there at age 25 and would eventually win 46 times in his 20s.
It marked the third successful title defense on the season, the other having come at Bay Hill and Muirfield Village.
By the Numbers: The win marked his third consecutive victory at the event and his sixth playoff win.
Win No. 30: March 27, 2002 – Bay Hill Invitational
Tiger Woods wins 2002 Bay Hill Invitational
When it was over and the logistics of Woods’ four-stroke win were dissected, a man who thought he had seen everything realized he hadn’t.
“In this day and age,” said Arnold Palmer, “that is an amazing thing. But (Woods) continues to do amazing things.”
The “thing” of which Palmer spoke: Woods earned his third straight win at Bay Hill, becoming the only golfer in history to win three different tournaments three straight years. (The others being the Memorial and the WGC-NEC Invitational.)
By the Numbers: Tiger made 20 birdies for the 37th time in his career and the 21st time en route to victory.
Win No. 31: April 14, 2002 – Masters
“He’s like (Jack) Nicklaus, like (Arnold) Palmer. He’s playing great golf, but we’re not putting it to him,” Davis Love III said. “Something’s going on with him that’s not going on with us.”
Woods’ third win at Augusta National in six starts as a professional surely deflated the opposition, but Phil Mickelson, who started the fourth round four back, pointed to a stark reality. “The thing about Tiger is, he’s the only leader that you don’t have the hope he’ll falter.”
Woods didn’t, either. Tied with Retief Goosen to start the final round, he birdied two of the first three holes, chipped in for birdie at No. 6, and stuffed a wedge to birdie the par-5 15th and build a five-stroke cushion.
“I think,” Goosen said, “that Tiger will be even greater than Jack (Nicklaus). It’s just a matter of time.”
By the Numbers: Tiger became the third player in Masters history to successfully defend his title joining Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo.
Win No. 32: June 16, 2002 – U.S. Open
For the first time in his brief, but meteoric career, Woods wins the first two majors of the season and the media is agog over a possible Grand Slam.
Woods wondered aloud if they had overlooked his winning four in a row already – the U.S. Open, The Open Championship and PGA Championship in 2000, then the Masters in 2001. “When I was home, I had all four trophies on my mantle, and no other person can say that.”
“Tiger Slam” vs. “Grand Slam,” who cares? Woods held off Phil Mickelson, outplayed Sergio Garcia, and withstood brutally tough Bethpage Black, a result that pleased Earl Woods, who watched on television from a nearby hotel.
“I told him (years earlier), I promise you one thing: You’ll never meet another person as tough as you,” Earl said. “He hasn’t, and he won’t.”
By the Numbers: Tiger became the first player to win the U.S. Open in wire-to-wire fashion twice.
Win No. 33: Aug. 11, 2002 – Buick Open
Tiger Woods wins the 2002 Buick Open
In Round 2 at Warwick Hills, Woods had sizzled with 63, prompting third-round playing competitor Scott Verplank to quip: “I hope he doesn’t get nervous with me.”
Told that his fourth-round playing competitor, Esteban Toledo, was a former prize fighter and presumably a tough foe, Woods smiled. “I can take him in the ring – if you give me a 2-iron.”
Much levity in a warm summer tournament wedged in the week before the PGA Championship, but one serious note remained constant: In crunch time, Woods ruled. He needed a closing 70 to finish 17 under and win by four.
By the Numbers: This win marked one of only 7 stroke play wins when making two or more double bogeys en route to victory.
Win No. 34: Sept. 22, 2002 – WGC-American Express Championship
Tiger Woods wins 2003 WGC-American Express Championship
As a playing competitor, Jerry Kelly watched Woods’ near-flawless performance as he built a five-stroke lead through 54 holes at Mount Juliet in Ireland. “It will take something in the 50s to beat him,” predicted Kelly.
Retief Goosen nearly pulled the trick, but his round of 62 still fell one short as Woods closed with 66 to win by one.
Thrilled to win, Woods was steamed to lose the chance for a bogey-free, 72-hole tournament – on the last hole, no less. Woods cited the early click of a photographer for a flinch and an errant shot into the 18th green that led to his only bogey of the week.
“The most important shot of the week and he gets a happy finger,” said Woods.
By the Numbers: Tiger went bogey free in three of his four rounds at this event marking his only win on TOUR where he has three bogey-free rounds in the same week.
Win 35: Feb. 16, 2003 – Buick Invitational
Tiger Woods wins 2003 Buick Invitational
Squeezed between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in Sunday’s final pairing, Brad Faxon quipped that he “felt like Switzerland.” Great quote, but an even better front-row seat to study the genius of Woods.
“Every part of his game was on. It’s hard to imagine someone playing any better.”
Having undergone knee surgery six weeks earlier, Woods hardly looked like he had missed a step. He made just four bogeys in 72 holes, and just two of them on weekend play on Torrey Pines’ South Course, as he won by at least four strokes for the 11th time.
By the Numbers: From 1999 to 2013 Tiger won 7 of 12 (58%) starts at this event.
Win 36: March 2, 2003 – WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship
Tiger Woods wins 2003 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship
The conversation. It was non-stop in the quarterfinal match, said Scott Hoch. “You say, ‘Nice shot. Nice shot. Nice shot,’ ” Hoch laughed, when asked about his chatter with Tiger Woods.
It lasted just 14 holes, too, because “Tiger’s a different animal; he’s just playing too good.”
Squeaking past Adam Scott on the 19th hole of the semifinals, Woods got five-up through 19 holes, then held off David Toms, 2-and-1, to capture this tournamen for the first time, which is modeled after his mentally tough game.
By the Numbers: In three Match Play victories, Tiger only had to go to the final hole in 4 of 18 matches.
Win 37: March 23, 2003 – Bay Hill Invitational
Tiger Woods wins 2003 Bay Hill Invitational
“What can you say?” asked Arnold Palmer, preparing to hand his tournament’s winning trophy to Woods for the fourth straight year. “He’s so fixed on what he’s doing.”
Such focus led to some impressive factoids – it was the fourth win by at least 11 strokes; he played his last 44 holes bogey-free; and he finished 19 under.
“I think,” Jeff Sluman said, “he could beat us on one leg, if he had to.”
In time, Mr. Sluman. In time.
By the Numbers: Tiger led the field in Greens in Regulation on the way to a tournament-record 11 shot win.
Win 38: July 6, 2003 – 100th Western Open
Tiger Woods wins 100th Western Open in 2003
Sprinting to the finish line in 272 strokes, Rich Beem was quite satisfied. “I’m proud as punch for the way I did everything this week,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve got a guy who’s superhuman out here this week.”
That would be Woods, who cruised to a five-stroke win over Beem and established PGA TOUR history in the meantime – the first player in history to achieve at least four wins in five straight seasons.
By the Numbers: Tiger opened with a 9-under 63 for his lowest opening round score to par in a PGA TOUR event.
Win 39: Oct. 5, 2003 – WGC-American Express Championship
Tiger Woods wins 2003 WGC-American Express Championship
What wound up being just a two-stroke victory over Stuart Appleby was for the most part another Woods blowout. He finished sloppily – bogeys on three of his last five holes at the Capital City Club – or else it would have been another massive triumph. As it was, Woods was never threatened and Appleby explained what his mindset was for Round 4:
“There was no point,” he said, when asked if he envisioned coming back against Woods’ lead. “You don’t ever plan on Tiger coming back (to the field).”
By the Numbers: Not including majors, the 2003 WGC-American Express Championship is the only event where Tiger has shot 2-over in the final round and gone on to win.
Win No. 40: Feb. 29, 2004 – WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship
Tiger Woods wins 2004 WGC- Accenture Match Play
Yet another successful title defense as Woods handled Davis Love III, 3-and-2, in the final match. It gave him eight wins in 14 WGC starts, though he wasn’t exactly on his game. In fact, Woods didn’t have the lead till the 25th hole, having sprayed the ball all over the LaCosta Resort.
Even those who came up short seemed to appreciate the chance to compete against the world’s best golfer.
John Rollins was not initially in the 64-man field until others withdrew, making him the last player in the field – and the first one to face the top-seeded Woods. “I just want to play well and at least give him a good match,” said Rollins prior to his Round 1 loss.
As for Love, he too seemed resigned to the result.
“He’s obviously the best at what he does,” Love said.
By the Numbers: At this time, Tiger had won 20 of 23 matches.
Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.