1. The Tiger Slam. Give Tiger a mulligan on two swings at the 2000 Masters, and maybe he wins the straight-up Grand Slam that year. Instead, Vijay Singh won at Augusta and Woods ran the table for the next four major championships — the 2000 U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, and the 2001 Masters. That wasn’t a surprise to Woods, who had talked with swing coach Butch Harmon before the 2000 season about a possible sweep because of the Tiger-favorable courses: Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Valhalla.
He was scary-good as he won by a record 15 shots at Pebble Beach with a record score of 12 under par, and by eight shots at St. Andrews with a record score of 19 under. The 2001 Masters victory, the culmination of what was dubbed the Tiger Slam, meant Woods had all four major trophies on his mantle at once. (You can toss in the ’01 Players Championship if you like.) As he stood on Augusta’s 18th green, the Slam won, Woods pulled his cap down over his face to cover his tears, then shook hands with Phil Mickelson after he putted out. “As a kid, I never dreamed about winning four straight majors. Kids don’t dream that big,” Woods said later. SI writer Frank Deford later opined: “His 2000 was the greatest year ever in golf. He changed golf, the way we feel about golf and the entire golf industry.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment — so far.
2. The shot heard ’round the world. With apologies to Gene Sarazen and Larry Mize, the most famous shot in Masters history is now the reverse chip-in at the par-3 16th by Tiger Woods in the final round when he won in 2005. You’re in a minority of earthlings if you don’t know CBS announcer Verne Lundquist’s excited call — “In your life have you seen anything like that?” — which CBS replays annually. Thanks to TV, Tigermania and the Internet, Tiger’s chip that rolled up the hill, then rolled back down and ever-so-slowly toppled into the cup is surely the most viewed golf shot ever. It didn’t matter that Woods bogeyed the next two holes to fall back into a playoff with Chris DiMarco, which he won. That glorious chip is The Shot of Augusta’s modern era.
3. Swede success. It was a watershed year for Annika Sorenstam in 2003. Not just because she played great golf, as usual, and won six times, including a pair of major titles, or because she was named Player of the Year for a sixth time. It all changed for her in May when she accepted an invitation to play in the PGA Tour event at Colonial in Fort Worth. In the wake of several critical comments from male players, Sorenstam became a Seabiscuit-like international underdog. She also loosened up in pre-tournament press conferences, giving folks a first look into a pleasant personality that she’d previously kept under wraps.
Sure, Sorenstam was the first woman to shoot 59 in competition (in 2001) and the best woman golfer of her era, but she earned more respect for her gritty showing at Colonial than for anything else she’d done up to that point. Notable trivia: Kenny Perry won the event; Sorenstam was paired with Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber; she shot 71-74, tied for 96th; she finished ahead of Mark Brooks and Geoff Ogilvy, among others. “When people talk about Colonial,” she said later that year, “the hair on my arms stands on end.”
A lot of fans felt the same way.
4. Watson’s last stand. All four major championships in 2009 were remarkable, but they shared a common theme — they weren’t supposed to end the way they did. Kenny Perry’s bobble at Augusta, Phil Mickelson’s three-putt at Bethpage Black and Tiger Woods’ lost 54-hole PGA lead scuttled what would have been incredibly dramatic stories.
Then there was the British Open at Turnberry, where an aging legend returned like something out of a dream. Five-time Open champion Tom Watson, long a revered figure in Scotland, played the golf of his life on the old links at Turnberry and appeared poised to win a major championship at 59,
13 11 years older than any major champion in history. It still looked good when Watson swung a sweet 8-iron at the final hole … until the ball rolled over the green and part-way down an embankment.
Watson didn’t get up and down for the par he needed to win, leaving a 10-foot putt woefully short. He suddenly looked his age in the four-hole playoff and lost badly to Stewart Cink. The Scots wanted this one for Old Tom, and the trophy presentation felt like a funeral as fans silently filed out, many of them teary-eyed.
Watson’s amazing week was the golf story of the year.
5. I am such an idiot. At Winged Foot in 2006, Phil Mickelson had three major titles on his resume and the chance to finally land the big one that got away. Phil had suffered U.S. Open near-misses at Pinehurst, Bethpage Black and Shinnecock Hills, and all he needed was a par at the 18th to win this Open, or a bogey to force a playoff. You know the rest. It was Jean Van de Velde all over again, only with trees instead of grandstands and a water hazard.
Mickelson blocked a tee shot left off a hospitality tent, took two to get out of the trees, blasted out of a bunker and made a double-bogey 6 to blow the Open in New York, where he is a huge crowd favorite. His subsequent self-effacing quote, “I am such an idiot,” said it all and made Mickelson the new poster boy of major championships squandered. At least in golf, that’s only a temporary position. (For details, see Colin Montgomerie, Scott Hoch, Greg Norman or Kenny Perry, to name a few.)
6. The Battle of Augusta. What if … Masters chairman Hootie Johnson had just ignored the letter from Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organizations? We might have been spared a year of unseemly — and ultimately wasted — animosity over the absence of women at Augusta National Golf Club. Instead, Johnson hit back, and his comment that the club wouldn’t change its policies “at the point of a bayonet” started a year-long war that led up to the 2003 Masters.
Burk went from relative unknown to a regular guest on national news shows, and she enjoyed strong backing from the New York Times, which editorially urged Tiger Woods to boycott the tournament, USA Today and the Washington Post. When Burk shrewdly began to apply gender-based political pressure to advertisers, Johnson outflanked her by canceling all tournament sponsorships. The battle dragged on for months, and Burk promised that picketing protestors in Augusta “will give those good old boys the vapors.”
Long saga short: Burk was denied permits to demonstrate near Augusta National’s main gate and had to move the protest elsewhere. What protest? Fewer than a hundred demonstrators showed up. Score a win for Johnson as the Masters went on uninterrupted. Two years later, the tournament sponsors were back on board.
The only real winners, as usual, were the lawyers. Burk sued the city of Augusta over its protest ordinance and won a favorable ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ordered the city to pay $150,000 in NCWO legal fees. When the court refused to hear an appeal, city officials negotiated a $120,000 settlement.
7. American idols. The U.S. Ryder Cup team was at rock bottom going into the 2008 Ryder Cup, having won only one of the last six Cups, including consecutive 9.5-point thumpings in 2004 and 2006. So captain Paul Azinger drew up a new points system and grouped his players in four-man pods according to personality type, which built familiarity during practice rounds. Azinger made all the right moves as his relaxed-but-determined lineup (minus the injured Tiger Woods) defeated Europe by a satisfying five-point margin to regain the Cup.
J.B. Holmes, one of Azinger’s picks, came up big in singles, as did Kentucky native Kenny Perry, who heeded Azinger’s advice on how to minimize the pressure of playing in front of his vocal home-state supporters.
Lightly regarded Boo Weekley was unbeaten and provided the moment that symbolized Team USA’s fun approach. In his Sunday’s singles match, he hilariously galloped off the first tee riding his driver like a pony. The enthusiastic fans responded to Azinger’s request to become the 13th man and gave the event a loud, football game-like atmosphere. “After this,” Golf Channel analyst Steve Flesch said, “the next tour event is going to seem like a member-guest.”
President George Bush invited the victorious team to the White House, where a wowed Weekley, who had an upcoming hunting trip planned, had the last word. “The only thing that would top this year off any better for me,” he said, “would be to go out and get me a big deer.”
8. The long goodbye. The Old Course, which had just hosted the 2000 British Open, landed the ’05 Open for one reason — Jack Nicklaus. When the Royal & Ancient Golf Club realized that Nicklaus would turn 66 in 2006 and no longer be eligible to compete according to Open rules, it scheduled the ’05 Open for St. Andrews to lure Nicklaus for a farewell appearance. (Jack won memorable Opens there in 1970 and ’78.) It was no ordinary farewell, as the Royal Bank of Scotland issued commemorative five-pound notes featuring Jack’s image, an instant collector’s item. Nicklaus was paired with old rival Tom Watson, a nice touch, and England’s Luke Donald.
Nicklaus started the second round wearing a replica of the navy argyle sweater he wore when he won in ’78, but it was too warm so he took it off. When he finished at 6 p.m., a huge crowd gathered around the 18th. He was going to miss the cut, so he paused for farewell photos on the Swilcan Bridge en route to the green, where he rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt and raised his putter one last time as he soaked up the cheers.
“I knew that hole would move wherever I hit it,” Nicklaus joked later. Thus the game’s greatest player officially closed the book on his remarkable career.
9. The Supremes. Casey Martin would prefer to be remembered for being the low amateur at the 1998 U.S. Open, or for winning a Nike Tour tournament (using a cart thanks to a temporary restraining order), or for playing a full season on the PGA Tour in 2000 and making 14 of 29 cuts. Those were victories to be celebrated for a man who became an elite-level golfer despite suffering from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a rare and painful circulatory problem in his leg. The moment most of us remember him for, however, happened on May 29, 2001, when the Supreme Court ruled by a 7-2 margin that Martin was entitled to use a cart to play professional golf under the Americans with Disability Act.
The PGA Tour fought the case, first losing in a Eugene, Ore., court in ’98 and then again in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals two years later. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were among those who testified against Martin and argued that riding in a cart was an advantage. Martin won the battle — the final tally in three different courts was 11 judges for, only two against — but not the war. His game deteriorated along with his leg. He never regained PGA Tour status after 2000 and retired from competing in 2005. He accepted a job in 2006 as the University of Oregon’s golf coach.
Martin’s legal victory paved the way for subsequent decisions that allowed Erik Compton, a heart-transplant recipient, and MacKinzie Kline, who has a congenital heart defect, to ride carts in competition. After the Supreme Court ruling, Melinda Martin, Casey’s mother, said, “I feel like somebody who just won the Academy Award. All Casey ever wanted was a chance.”
10. Asian domination. When Se Ri Pak was the surprise winner of the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, she was one of only three Koreans playing on the LPGA tour. Since 2004, seven women’s major championships have been won by seven different Korean women. That’s an amazing transformation.
In 2009, 47 Koreans played on the LPGA, which has become a true global tour with players from 27 countries. On any given week, half of the top 30 players in the Rolex World Rankings are Asian (a majority of them Korean). Wins by Birdie Kim in the 2005 U.S. Open and Jeong Jang in the 2005 Women’s British Open signaled a new wave of talented Korean players, most of whom were inspired by Pak’s success. Three of four majors in 2008 were won by Asian players — Inbee Park and Ji-Yai Shin of South Korea and Yani Tseng of Taiwan. Shin is currently No. 2 in the world behind Lorena Ochoa.
What’s behind the Korean gold rush? Demanding parents, national pride, the lure of big prize money and an emphasis on sports over academics. In August of 2008, the LPGA announced a new rule that would have required LPGA players to pass English proficiency tests. After a predictably strong backlash, including one California senator who suggested the policy might violate state laws, the LPGA dropped the rule.