A decade is a healthy chunk of time, but it’s still not enough to contain all of the Tiger Woods Era, which began in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, 10 years is a reasonable sampling. It’s 40 major championships in men’s golf and well over 400 PGA Tour events, for instance. A handful of golfers stood head and shoulders above the rest of golf during the 10-year span. Here are the 10 men and women selected to the game’s All-Decade Team.
Tiger Woods. You can pretty much retire the trophy, whatever the category, with Tiger. He’s the Golfer of the Decade and unfortunately also the Scandalous Golfer of the Decade. He’d be the unanimous winner of both if we put it to a vote, but what’s the point? We already know. His numbers border on the absurd. He won 56 times on the PGA Tour in this 10-year span, 12 of them majors. He became the first player to capture four consecutive major titles, in 2000-’01 (the so-named “Tiger Slam” since the Grand Slam is considered to be winning all four majors in the same calendar year), something once considered so unlikely as to be impossible.
Dominant is the only word that describes Woods, and even that doesn’t sound strong enough. He was voted Player of the Year in seven of the decade’s first nine years and is a lock to win it again after six victories in 2009. Eight-for-10? Yes, an .800 batting average is outrageous in slow-pitch softball, much less golf. The PGA Tour invented the World Golf Championships, and Woods has won 14 of those in this decade. And guess who walked away with the $10 million bonus in two of the first three FedEx Cups? He might have gone three-for-three if not for the lame excuse that he had knee surgery (after he won the U.S. Open in dramatic fashion on that bad knee) and was sidelined the last six months of 2008. All that did was make his comeback the story of 2009.
Woods led the Tour in victories nine times in 10 years and is closing in on assorted records once thought unattainable. With 71 career Tour wins, he’s only two behind Jack Nicklaus and 11 behind Sam Snead’s all-time record. Woods has challenged Byron Nelson’s mark of 11 consecutive wins, with streaks of seven, six and five victories in a row. That’s staggering. Snead owns the mark for most victories in a single event (he won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times) but maybe not for long. Tiger has won the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone seven times and the World Golf Championship now known as the CA Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill six times each.
The most amazing part of his decade, his career, is that he has done all this before he hit the age of 34. Looking to predict the Player of the Decade for the next 10 years? I wouldn’t want to bet against Woods.
Phil Mickelson. The search was on in the early 1990s for the Bear Apparent — that is, a successor to Jack Nicklaus as a dominant player. Mickelson wore that crown uneasily but had the look of greatness ever since winning a PGA Tour event while still a student at Arizona State. His career has been flawed but remarkable. He owns 23 victories, including three majors, in this decade. Those numbers would be remarkable if only Woods didn’t exist.
Mickelson’s place in history would be even more illustrious if not for some close calls. He has had five runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open — twice at Bethpage, once each at Pinehurst (in 1999), Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills. By any conservative estimate, he probably should have won three of those. He has been third four times at the Masters and twice just missed out on playoffs, at the British Open and the PGA Championship. He’s a mulligan or two away from having perhaps another half-dozen major titles.
Annika Sorenstam. If casual observers of women’s golf can name only one player, that player is Annika. Retired for a year already and now a happily blessed mother, she put up Tiger-esque numbers in the previous nine years. She won 54 times (72 overall on the LPGA), including eight of her 10 majors. She was No. 1 on the LPGA money list five times and was remarkably consistent. How consistent? She played 179 events and finished in the top 10 132 times. Her $22 million in career earnings is $8 million more than the next best total. She shot a 59 in a tournament in 2001, the only woman to achieve that feat.
Fans were slow to warm to her methodical style and cool personality, but that all changed when she teed it up with the men at Colonial in 2003, becoming a page-one story across the country and a beloved national underdog as she narrowly missed the cut. She also competed in the Skins Game, an iconic TV show, and held her own against the men. The women’s tour misses her already.
Vijay Singh. No one has aged better than the tall Fijian, who will turn 47 in February. He won 26 times this decade, 22 of those victories coming after he passed his 40th birthday. That smashed the record for most wins over 40, set by Sam Snead. Singh won the first Masters of the new millennium and a PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. He was a true rival for Woods in the sense that he was one of the few players who took something away from Woods. Singh won the money title three times (Tiger won the others). Perhaps his greatest achievement is that he is the only player in this decade besides Woods to hold the No. 1 world ranking. Singh grabbed it in September 2004 and held it for six months, then got it back for two three-week stretches in the spring of ’05.
Hale Irwin. The senior tour was organized so the game’s greatest players could take a second bow. Irwin’s encore surpassed all others. He makes this select squad despite winning only once in the last four years; that’s because he was so dominant in the previous six. Irwin, now 64, captured 20 of his record 45 Champions Tour victories this decade. He blew past Lee Trevino’s career mark of 29 in 2001 and set a record that seems unlikely to be matched. He turned 55 in mid-summer when the decade began, supposedly past prime time for a senior golfer’s career. Not in his case. Irwin won his second U.S. Senior Open that year and his fourth Senior PGA in 2004. In the first six years of the decade, he played 144 events and had 19 wins, 52 top-three finishes and 95 top 10s. Any discussion of senior golf starts with Irwin, period.
Lorena Ochoa. The end of Sorenstam’s reign was hurried by the rise of Ochoa, who amassed Sorenstam-like numbers during a productive five-year stretch. Ochoa won 24 times in five years, including a pair of major championships, at the 2007 Women’s British Open and the 2008 Nabisco Championship. Ochoa, an iconic figure in her native Mexico, won the money title and Player of the Year award three straight years and her run in 2006 and ’07 was particularly dominant. She finished third or better in 29 of the 50 tournaments she played. Still only 28, she has already accumulated enough points to qualify for the World Golf Hall of Fame. She’ll be eligible for induction in 2012 when she meets the 10-year minimum requirement.
Ryan Moore. He was unquestionably the most distinguished amateur player of the decade. He had the most storied amateur career since Mickelson in the early 1990s. Moore was a four-time All-America at UNLV and the college Player of the Year as a senior. All he did in 2004 was basically run the table in amateur golf, winning the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Public Links (for a second time), NCAA Championship, Western Amateur, Sahalee Amateur and Players Amateur. Playing for the U.S., he was also low individual at the World Amateur. He tied for 13th in the 2005 Masters, and his 287 was the lowest score posted by a Masters amateur since Lindy Miller shot 286 in 1978. Moore scored his first PGA Tour win last summer in Greensboro.
Dana Quigley. One golf record that will never be broken, partly because nobody has the energy to make a run at it, is Quigley’s mark of teeing it up in 264 consecutive senior events. For that alone, Quigley makes this lineup as the Ironman of the Decade. In one five-year span the fewest events he played was 35.
From 2000 through 2007, Quigley teed it up in 251 of 257 senior tournaments. Quigley’s streak came to an end at the 2005 British Open, which he skipped because of a sore hip. Ironman Dana, who earned eight of his 11 wins in this decade, finally cut back his playing schedule the last two years as he hit the age of 60.
Padraig Harrington. The best European player this decade turned out to be Harrington, the congenial Irishman from Dublin. He played well on both sides of the Atlantic, racking up a dozen European tour wins this decade. He also won three majors in two years and became the first European since James Braid in 1905 and ’06 to win the British Open in consecutive years. Though he struggled in 2009, Harrington is now a player to be reckoned with in every major he plays. Win three majors in the Tiger era, and you’re on the all-star team.
Tom Watson. He is the last golf legend still actively competing (with apologies to Greg Norman). His thrilling performance last summer at Turnberry, where he nearly claimed the claret jug at 59, was one for the ages. It was also one more piece of evidence that he has aged well. Watson’s resume famously lacked a PGA Championship, but he finally got one, sort of, when he won the 2001 Senior PGA Championship at Ridgewood in New Jersey. He also won 11 Champions Tour events in the decade, including three Senior British Opens … so far.