Not all major victories are created equally. Here’s my ranking of the 14 major championships won by Tiger Woods in order of greatness, significance and sheer drama (And if you’re scoring at home it’s four Masters, four PGAs, three U.S. Opens and three British Opens… so far).
1. 2008 U.S. Open. Are you kidding me? Woods has never been more heroic. First, there was the knee thing. After a month off, he came back and played well. Then the knee got worse over the weekend, and he had to limp across the finish line. On Saturday, he pulled off three miracle shots on the final six holes — two crazy eagle putts on 13 and 18 and a huge chip-in at 17. On Sunday, he had to hole a 12-footer for birdie on the 18th to force a playoff. On Monday, he had to birdie the same hole to extend the playoff with Rocco Mediate and he did it, going on to beat Mediate on the first extra-extra hole. This tournament had it all — superstar battles adversity and comes from behind to beat a Cinderella named Rocco. It was Tiger’s greatest win, no doubt.
2. 1997 Masters. Tiger shot 40 on the front nine of his first major championship as a pro. He shot 30 on the back and was off and running. He turned Augusta National into a pitch and putt course, shot a record 18 under par and shook the world of golf with his length and utter domination. There was the additional storyline of being the first player of color to win a Masters, which paled in comparison to his performance, which gave credence to Jack Nicklaus’ prediction early in the week that Woods would win as many green jackets as he and Arnold Palmer together — 10.
3. 2001 Masters. No Tiger win has been bigger historically (so far) than the one that completed the Tiger Slam — four major championships in a row — and set off a debate on whether the Grand Slam was four majors in a calendar year or four straight. The fact is Woods held all four titles at the same time, something no man in the modern era has so much as sniffed. Phil Mickelson and David Duval offered big-name competition but committed mistakes at the end that cost them.
4. 2000 PGA Championship. Or the Bob May PGA as many remember it. And why is it that the players who push Tiger in the big events are guys like May, Mediate, Woody Austin and Chris DiMarco and not the other marquee names of today’s game? Anyway, Woods had to make a huge clutch putt on 18 to force a playoff, which he did, and he had that famous putt that he animatedly chased to the hole and pointed at as it went in. This one was a thriller, with the usual outcome.
5. 2005 Masters. With apologies to Gene Sarazen, Tiger’s chip-in on the 16th hole in the final round is now the most famous shot in golf history thanks to instant replay. It is no less fantastic now as that ball rolls backwards towards the cup, teeters on the edge and finally drops. Hollywood couldn’t have done it better. The fact that Woods bogeyed the next two holes, and then needed two more holes to dispatch the gritty DiMarco only added to the drama.
6. 1999 PGA. Tiger’s second major win was pretty entertaining as he traded blows in a final-round duel with 19-year-old Sergio Garcia, who didn’t even have facial hair yet. Garcia dared to challenge Woods, turning to glare back at him on the tee after Garcia had just birdied the par-3 13th. At 16, Garcia played his most famous shot, a closed-eye effort from the base of the tree that ran up onto the green. It looked like the start of next-generation rivalry, (Tiger was still only 23) but as yet it hasn’t materialized. Woods won by one and became the youngest PGA champ since Jack Nicklaus in 1963.
7. 2006 British Open. His season was interrupted by the death of his father, Earl, and Tiger missed the cut at the U.S. Open following a month off as he dealt with his grief. At Royal Liverpool, Tiger displayed his superior shotmaking skills with his long irons and his golfing smarts by leaving driver in the bag. He maneuvered through the baked-out fairways at Hoylake by using irons and fairway woods off the tees. We caught a glimpse of Tiger’s emotional state on the final green when he hugged caddie Steve Williams in a long embrace and cried into his shoulder.
8. 2007 PGA Championship. Tiger avoided a major-season shutout by outdueling Ernie Els and Woody Austin in a sloppy final round at Southern Hills. The pursuers had closed to within a shot when Woods slammed the door with a clutch 7-iron shot and a 15-foot birdie putt at the 15th hole. Southern Hills was supposed to be a Tiger-killer course with its many doglegged fairways that he had played so poorly in the ’01 U.S. Open, but he proved the experts wrong.
9. 2002 U.S. Open. Raucous crowds ruled as the Open came to municipal-course Bethpage Black for the first time. They adopted Phil Mickelson, then still winless in majors, as their guy, creating what still ranks as probably the most exciting atmosphere in a major. Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington were contenders on the final day but all fell on their swords. Woods was too much and barely finished in twilight Sunday night because of a passing afternoon thunderstorm that delayed play.
10. 2002 Masters. This could’ve been quite a finish as Woods began the final round tied with Retief Goosen and also had Mickelson, Garcia, Els and Vijay Singh on his heels. Goosen snap-hooked his opening drive into the ninth fairway and wasn’t a factor. Els and Singh killed their chances with big numbers — Els tripled 13, Singh quadrupled. Garcia bogeyed three of the first six holes and Mickelson went bogey-bogey after a birdie-birdie start and nobody ever got close. Woods shot a careful 71 and won by three, becoming the first back-to-back Masters champ since Nick Faldo in 1990.
11. 2000 U.S. Open. Pebble Beach never looked better, but Tiger’s competition never looked weaker. He won by a record 15 shots and finished at 12 under, the first man to play 72 holes at an Open in double digits under par. There was no drama whatsoever but in other highlights, there was a fog delay, Tiger yanked a tee shot into the ocean on the famed 18th and dropped a loud f-bomb into the TV mikes live on national TV.
12. 2000 British Open. Tiger’s first trip as a professional to St. Andrews was another exercise in domination. It was over when he opened 67-66, and pretty much everyone knew it. He chalked up another major record score — he shot 19 under — and no one challenged him. Do you remember a single shot of Tiger’s from this event? Didn’t think so. Notably, he didn’t hit into a single bunker in 72 holes.
13. 2005 British Open. The Old Course at St. Andrews is apparently one of those courses where all Tiger has to do is show up for his tee time and he’s going to win, much like Torrey Pines or Medinah. Colin Montgomerie and Fred Couples had good showings, but Tiger was always safely in control, needed no heroics and won by five.
14. 2006 PGA Championship. Tiger posted 21 birdies and only three bogeys in 72 holes and won fairly easily during a birdie-fest that tarnished Medinah’s reputation as a major-worthy site. There was potential for an exciting finish since Woods began the final round tied with Luke Donald, but Donald melted with 74 and Woods shot 68 and easily won by three over former PGA champ Shaun Micheel.