For the last decade, Tiger Woods has been seeking his 15th major championship win. There were knee injuries and the very famous collapse of his personal life through his own doing, but he still lingered close to the top through 2013, when he won five events that year.
Once back trouble became the norm for Woods, however, many thought he had met the fate of so many golfers. Back injuries are often the end of a pro golfer’s peak, the thing that lingers and flares up over the course of a four-day event and keeps them from ever finding that sustained form again. At its worst, Woods’ back injury threatened to end his career in total, and even the most optimistic of Tiger fans had to question if we’d ever see him contend again.
It’s hard to overstate Tiger’s impact on the game of golf. An entire generation of young golfers were inspired by him, myself included. He was something golf had never seen, with a combination of skills no one had ever possessed. He could overpower a course off the tee. He had the finesse with irons to shape shots in every direction and control trajectory better than anyone ever had. His touch around the greens was matched by few, and at his peak he was the best putter in the world.
There were no holes in his game. He knew it and so did everyone else, which might have been his greatest strength. Tiger always had the mental edge on his competition. His mere presence at the top of the leaderboard would lead his competitors to wilt. At his peak, he won tournaments by margins that were previously unthinkable, and did it with a flair and bravado rarely seen on the course. He made athletes want to be golfers and made golfers become athletes to keep up.
His impact is visible on Tour, with the current crop of stars that play the game with the same style he once had. The typical golfer no longer looks like a somewhat overweight dad. There are guys that would look just as fitting in football pads as they do on the course. Players that grew up watching Tiger try to execute the way he did and take the same aggressive lines off the tee and into greens. Even when Tiger was out, watching the Tour gave you glimpses of his game because the best players under 35 all had, at one time, wanted to be Tiger and had their games shaped by him.
Watching Rory McIlroy bludgeon Congressional in 2011 gave off Tiger vibes, as did Jason Day setting a record for score to par at Whistling Straits in 2015. It still wasn’t quite the same as the buzz created by a big Sunday, however, with Tiger on the prowl. For a while many of us felt we’d never get it again and, for the most part, had come to terms with that.
Golf was in great hands without Tiger thanks to Woods’ influence, but like any great career that ends prematurely, there’s always been a feeling we were robbed. Golf is the rare sport where careers can last three decades and we can see the legends battle the generation they influenced. We were supposed to get that chance with Tiger, but for five plus years it felt like we weren’t getting the duels we were once promised.
Then last year, Woods came back after a back fusion surgery and looked an awful lot like the Tiger of old. He was close a few times, most notably in the Open when he had a share of the lead going to the back nine on Sunday before Francesco Molinari stared him down to win in the same group. Suddenly, it felt like we were getting our wish of seeing the best of today stare down the best ever in a true fair fight, but we’re all greedy. We wanted one more ride with Woods to a big win.