Ones That Got Away: How Many Majors Could Tiger Have Won?
How many more major championships should Tiger Woods have won?
Note, it’s a fine line between could have and should have.
Earlier this year, I re-examined the career of Jack Nicklaus, who famously had 19 major championship runner-up finishes along with 18 titles, and concluded that while Jack could have won as many as 35 majors, perhaps, he should have won 28. I was conservative in determining that Jack let 10 slip away.
How about Tiger? He hasn’t had as many near-misses as Jack. Tiger has been a runner-up six times, third three times (versus Jack’s nine) and fourth six times.
Based on where Tiger stood while contending on major Sundays, I believe he probably could have won nine more.
But how many more should Tiger have won?
Given the way Tiger finished off victories through 2008, I can make a convincing case that Tiger should have won eight more. If he had, he’d be at 22 and the record would belong to him, probably forever.
Here are the majors that got away from Tiger, ranked by level of grievousness:
2009 PGA Championship, Hazeltine
This is the only major Woods led after 54 holes and didn’t win. Who would’ve thought Y.E. Yang would be the player to ruin Tiger’s perfect major record? The little-known Yang, then 37, flat outplayed Tiger in the final round.
Woods made two bogeys and no birdies on the front nine, allowing Yang to catch up, then exhibited some bad short-game play and bogeyed the last two holes to lose to Yang by three. Besides a dismal closing 75, Tiger may have also blundered by playing unusually conservatively in the third round. After building a four-shot advantage at the halfway point, Woods signed for a Saturday 71, and his lead was cut in half. Yang, meanwhile, posted 67, the day’s low round.
1999 U.S. Open, Pinehurst
This counts as one of the best Opens in modern golf history and with no disrespect to Payne Stewart, Tiger absolutely should’ve won it. Tiger still hadn’t won a second major after his 1997 Masters breakthrough and in this final round, he airmailed three greens from the fairway with wedge in his hands -- just inexcusable stuff, as Tiger would readily admit.
Still, Tiger was in the hunt. He birdied the 14th hole and then made a remarkable birdie at 16 to draw within one of Stewart. The 17th hole was the difference. Tiger lipped out his par putt while Stewart, playing in the final group, hit it tight and made birdie. Payne then made the famous par putt at 18 to edge expectant father Phil Mickelson by one, and Tiger and Vijay Singh by two.
2002 PGA Championship, Hazeltine
What is it about Minnesota that turned Rich Beem and, seven years later, Y.E. Yang into Tiger-killers? After the Tiger Slam in 2001, Woods was deemed invincible, but Beem was the first opponent who made him flinch.
CBS analyst Lanny Wadkins made that call on the air, in fact, and was later backed up by Arnold Palmer, who said, "It’s the first time I’ve seen him (Tiger) lose it." Beem eagled the par-5 11th hole in the final round, and the roar from that stroke caused Tiger to back off his birdie putt at the 13th. Apparently rattled, Tiger three-putted from 12 feet for bogey and then bogeyed the next hole too.
Still supremely confident, Tiger told caddie Steve Williams that he’d still win if he birdied the final four holes, which he did. Beem didn’t wilt, however, holing a 30-foot birdie putt at the 16th that gave him a cushion going to the last two holes.
2005 U.S. Open, Pinehurst
All Tiger needed was a decent final round and this Open would’ve been his, because Retief Goosen and Jason Gore, playing in the final twosome, couldn’t break 80.
Instead, Tiger struggled to a 73. He recovered from a bogey-bogey start, but his hopes ended with bogeys at 16 and 17. He three-putted at the par-3 17th, just as he had in the 1999 U.S. Open that he also coulda-shoulda won. Woods shot a closing 69 but had an unusually poor week on the greens. "I didn’t feel comfortable with my putter all week," he said. "It was frustrating, I could never get the speed right." Woods made a meaningless birdie on the final green to finish two shots behind surprising winner Michael Campbell, who got into the Open by way of sectional qualifying.
2007 U.S. Open, Oakmont
This Open was there for the taking, but Tiger instead settled for a career first: runner-up finishes in back-to-back majors. Tiger, looking more muscled-up than perhaps at any time in his career, was paired in Sunday’s final twosome with Aaron Baddeley. Tiger was two shots back and looking good when Baddeley fell apart right out of the gate en route to an 80.
But Woods hockey-chipped across the 3rd green for an ugly double bogey. Despite that, he still had a chance if he scored one birdie coming in, but he parred the last seven holes for a 72, one stroke behind Angel Cabrera.
While he was 12-for-12 in majors when he held the second- or third-round lead, Tiger fell to 0-for-25 when coming from behind. In his previous Open wins in 2000 and 2002, he held the first-round lead.
"My last four majors, I’ve been 1-1-2-2 -- not terrible but I could have been a little better," Woods said. "I’ve put myself there and haven’t gotten it done."
2003 British Open, Royal St. George’s
Maybe it wasn't Tiger’s week. His opening tee shot disappeared into the right rough and was never found, leading to a triple bogey. Then again, he had his moments. Tiger electrified the gallery with a pair of eagles on the front nine on Saturday and temporarily surged into the lead before playing the back nine in three over par for a 69 that left him three strokes behind Thomas Bjorn.
On Sunday, Woods wasn’t able to take advantage of Bjorn’s infamous 16th-hole meltdown, when he needed three shots to escape a greenside bunker and made a double bogey. Tiger bogeyed two of the last four holes, including the 17th, where he came up just short of the green, played a poor chip 12 feet past and missed the par putt. Tiger shot 71 and finished two strokes behind out-of-nowhere champion Ben Curtis.
2010 U.S. Open Pebble Beach
The post-scandal Tiger didn’t have any of the magic he showed in 2000 when he set Open scoring records for most strokes under par (12) and margin of victory (15).
Sprinkled among his good shots were some awful, un-Tiger-like ones. Woods scorched the back nine in 31 on Saturday to play his way into contention. On Sunday, however, he was beaten by his playing companion, an obscure Frenchman named Gregory Havret. That never would’ve happened to the pre-scandal Tiger. An even-par 72 on Sunday would’ve gotten Woods into a playoff with Graeme McDowell. Instead, Woods shot 75 after making bogeys on six of the first 12 holes.
Tiger’s key Sunday mistakes included: three-putting for bogey on the opening hole; hitting 3-wood off the tee at the reachable par-5 6th hole (instead of 2-iron, a mental mistake, Tiger later admitted) and blocking it right of one of Pebble’s widest fairways and onto the cliff; and flaring a wedge right of the 10th green and making a bogey.
Adding insult to injury, a plane flew over the course on Sunday with a banner that read TIGER ARE YOU MY DADDY? Which was pretty much too good not to mention if you were a golf writer.
2007 Masters, Augusta National
What you might remember about this tournament is Tiger's snapping his 4-iron in half while hitting a risky shot from behind a tree at the 11th hole in the final round and making an amazing par. Then he eagled the 13th hole and looked like he was charging. Nope. He parred in for 72 even after finding the water at 15 and finished two shots behind Zach Johnson, who shot 69.
What you should remember is that Tiger began the final round one behind 54-hole leader Stuart Appleby, who doubled the opening hole on Sunday, and that Tiger wasted a bit of an opportunity by making bogey there himself. You should also recall that Tiger finished bogey-bogey on Thursday and Saturday, four costly strokes. Conditions were tough, but Tiger could’ve overcome the Zach Attack.