Where do we start? At the beginning, of course. Aug. 29, 1996. Hello, world. Goodbye, competitive equilibrium. The day Tiger Woods became a professional golfer is the day our intrinsically grounded game lost its gravitational pull. Twenty-five years ago, a skinny young man of mixed race embarked on a quest that would shatter all preconceived notions and demolish the most outrageous expectations.
His father compared him to the messiah. Veteran tour pros snickered, bemused by the avalanche of hype. “You’ll learn,” ABC analyst Curtis Strange told Woods in a one-on-one interview right before Tiger’s first pro start. It was a response triggered by the kid’s proclamation that “second sucks and third is even worse,” a cocky call to arms delivered to a national television audience with neither a smile nor regret.
Woods wasted no time exerting his superiority on a sport that had lacked a truly dominant player for an entire generation. He performed like Jack Nicklaus and became as popular as Arnold Palmer, although his public image was clobbered like a piñata more than once along the way. Tiger’s massive mainstream appeal is the sole reason PGA Tour purses began soaring deep into the stratosphere the day he began driving the bus — from $101 million in total prize money in his rookie season to $292 million in 2008.
That’s a 9.8 percent increase per year, as opposed to an average growth of 3.4 percent from 1990-96. With Woods behind the wheel, his fellow competitors earned a staggering $1.6 billion in additional income during those 12 years. Michael Jordan didn’t come close to changing the NBA the way Eldrick Almighty impacted pro golf. Only Babe Ruth dominated his game to a comparable degree for such a lengthy period of time.
In the South, they call that tall cotton. Everywhere else, they call it pretty bleeping amazing. Tiger Woods is one of the three of four greatest sportsmen who ever lived, as the following list of his 25 most extraordinary accomplishments may attest.
Tiger Woods’s 25 Most Incredible Career Accomplishments
- Made his television debut on the Mike Douglas Show at age 2. With Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart as witnesses, Tiger the toddler hustled onto the set in red shorts and a crooked ballcap, assumed a textbook stance, then whacked a dead-solid perfect mini driver straight into the TV horizon. Strong evidence that natural talent comes courtesy of the Man Upstairs.
- Compiled an 11–1 career record in playoffs, which includes unforgettable triumphs at the 2000 PGA Championship and 2008 U.S. Open. A box of three-day-old French crullers goes to anyone who can identify the lone spoiler.
- Continuously held the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking for more than five years on two separate occasions. Tiger spent 683 weeks atop the OWGR. Greg Norman is second at 331.
- Made it through the entire 2000 British Open without hitting his ball into a bunker. Seeing how there are 112 sandy hazards at St. Andrews, many of them blind, that’s like driving around Manhattan for 30 years without sustaining a fender bender. Not for nothing, Woods beat Ernie Els and Thomas Bjorn by eight.
- Won the 1996 Pac-10 championship by 14 strokes, breaking the course record at Big Canyon CC by five shots with a 61 in his opening round. Woods had lunch, then went back out and fired a 65. Second sucks.
- Won 11 of 26 collegiate tournaments he entered at Stanford, a victory percentage of 42.3 percent. That wasn’t nearly as strenuous as being called Urkel, the nickname given to Tiger by teammate Notah Begay.
- Appeared on the cover of the New York Post for 20 consecutive days at the end of 2009, passing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for the longest such streak in the tabloid’s history. It was a story with legs, so to speak, as Tiger’s rampant infidelity cost him his marriage but sold lots of newspapers.
- Rallied from seven strokes down with nine holes to play to beat Matt Gogel at the 2000 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Former Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, a member of Woods’s foursome as Jim Furyk’s amateur partner, would call it “the most dumbfounding thing I’ve ever seen in sports,” although it wasn’t even Tiger’s best performance at Pebble that year.
- Won the 2006 British Open despite not hitting his driver on a single hole over the final three rounds. Woods had used it just once on Thursday, then geared down on the dusty old racetrack known as Royal Liverpool and led the field in fairways hit en route to one of the finest performances of his career.
- Claimed an unfathomable six consecutive USGA titles, the last three of them U.S. Amateurs, the last of those featuring a brutally difficult 30-footer on the 35th hole to finally pull even with Steve Scott. If Woods doesn’t jar that birdie putt on the 17th green that afternoon, history meanders off its prescribed path. For all the putts Tiger has made since, none were bigger.
- Strung together at least five consecutive PGA Tour victories three times, including seven straight in 2006-2007. Does this accomplishment really require an explanation?
- Broke Byron Nelson’s longstanding record for the lowest single-season scoring average (68.15) in PGA Tour history. Of all the numbers that define Woods’s remarkable achievements in 2000, several of which rank higher on this list, this one serves as the ultimate standard of excellence. He had very few bad days that year. Come to think of it, he didn’t have many mediocre ones, either.
- Won two of his first seven starts as a pro. Tiger not only hit the ground winning, he beat Davis Love III for his first career triumph and held off Payne Stewart down the stretch at the old Disney tournament two weeks later. As if to remind everyone about the new sheriff in town, Woods began 1997 by defeating Tom Lehman in a playoff at the season-opener at La Costa. Three of America’s finest veterans, all vanquished by the Dude in the Red Shirt.
- Won 14 of the first 26 World Golf Championships contested once the series made its debut in 1999. The WGCs were a much bigger deal before the FedEx Cup playoffs came along (2007). All the big names showed up. The golf courses were top-notch, and Woods beat the hell out of everyone on a regular basis. They still attract quality fields, but Tiger put the WGC franchise on the map.
- Punctuated his comeback in grand style by winning the 2019 Masters. Most people would rank this victory well into their top 10, but the fact of the matter is, Woods wouldn’t have claimed his 15th major title if everyone else in the hunt didn’t dump their tee shots into Rae’s Creek at the par-3 12th. Yes, it’s a mysterious little hole, but it’s not the Bermuda Triangle. A fabulous feelgood story featuring the most dominant player ever, a gift from the golf gods, and at the end of the day, Tiger did what Tiger does. Win.
- Survived a 19-hole Monday playoff against Rocco Mediate to win the 2008 U.S. Open. He did it on one leg, as everybody knows, and that bum knee left Woods’s game in shambles as he prepared to give it a shot at Torrey Pines. Haney recalls Eldrick losing balls by the sleeve while limping through a practice round about a month before the tournament. That bumpy putt to save par and force the playoff will forever remain the biggest stroke of his career.
- Has currently amassed $120,851,706 in career earnings, $26 million more than Phil Mickelson, (283 more starts than Woods) and almost $50 million more than anyone else. That said, you could still make a case that Tiger is the most underpaid player in golf history.
- Went almost seven months without shooting a round over par. This streak commenced in mid-2000 and ran into the beginning of the 2001 season, ending at 52. It serves as Woods’s version of Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 straight games in 1941, and by any estimation, is equally monumental. Furyk ranks second on the all-time list at 38 straight. This is one of several records in Tiger’s possession that may never be broken.
- Won his first 14 major titles after holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. Given that the guy atop the leaderboard after three rounds wins about half the time on the PGA Tour, the mathematical probability of someone doing this is almost impossible to comprehend. That none other than Y.E. Yang ended Tiger’s big-game invincibility at the 2009 PGA Championship is both amusing and slightly inaccurate. Someone in the Department of Extended Dominance finally decided that enough was enough.
- Broke numerous scoring records to win the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes. Frankly, the last four of these Tigeriffic feats are basically interchangeable. Woods’s performance at Pebble Beach registers as the finest golf ever played by anyone over the course of an entire week. They don’t give you a larger paycheck if you win by more than two touchdowns, but the residual rewards are worth more than the money. Long-term superiority cannot be purchased at a local store.
- Made the cut at 142 consecutive PGA Tour events, a streak that lasted almost 7 ½ years. This record is slightly fabricated in that Woods was given credit for 14 tournaments at which there was no cut, but why nitpick? A truly astonishing feat, given the depth of fields in the modern game and the understanding that one lousy hole can bring all the high-level consistency to a halt. Inarguable testimony to Woods’s unparalleled mental toughness, week after week, year after year.
- Won the 1997 Masters, his first major as a professional, by 12 shots. Woods’s most historic achievement for several reasons: his age (21), his ethnicity, the ridiculous margin of victory and the pressure that comes with the entire world wanting to see if you’re as good as advertised. Tiger bludgeoned Augusta National, hitting short irons into both back-nine par 5s and making his opening-nine 40 look like a misprint. The loudest statement ever made by a competitive golfer.
- Became the only man in the modern era to win four consecutive major titles. That whole rhubarb over whether a “Tiger Slam” was equal to a Grand Slam was just media-generated rubbish. Four straight major victories is a feat exempt of qualification. To win the first two by a combined 23 shots, then survive an epic, David vs. Goliath showdown in extra holes — then cap it off at the cathedral designed by Bobby Jones — stands as the definitive reason why Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer who ever lived.