What does Tiger Woods do best?
Tough question. It sparks a mental montage. The image of a golf swing so correct and graceful, in all its various iterations. A panoply of shots that lodge in the collective memory for their genius blend of power, touch, precision, invention, nerve and momentous timing. The impassive competitive mask that unfailingly projects serene intentionality amid the highest tension. The last-hole celebrations whose unsettling explosions of momentarily unguarded emotion reveal just how much Woods’ greatness requires.
Where to begin amid such a complex package and sprawling body of work is daunting. Until it finally dawns that the uniform excellence of Tiger’s craft, effort and most of all, results, over these last 30 years are all of a piece.
Simply, where to begin is at the end, the place where everything is added up – the record. Or more precisely, the records. Those he holds and those he’s challenged. Because it’s in their pursuit that Tiger Woods has always been at his best.
Woods knows records, as both connoisseur and collector. He knows they are history, and as such the truest measure of who got it done the most and who’s the best. He knows not only the significance of his own records but also many important ones held by others, and definitely those he hopes to make his own. The former prodigy who always preferred to let the clubs do the talking welcomes the day when he can let his records do the same.
Of course, a few already do. The 44-year-old Woods is currently tied with Sam Snead for the most PGA Tour victories at 82. He is the only player ever to win four consecutive professional majors – the Tiger Slam – which is considered either superior, equivalent or inferior to Bob Jones’ Grand Slam, by approximately equally divided adherents. He is three short of Jack Nicklaus’ iconic record of 18 professional majors, but his 15th major, the 2019 Masters, breathed renewed life into that epic chase.
Woods has plenty of numbers that can settle otherwise subjective arguments. The most precocious player ever? His six Optimist Junior World age-group titles between the ages of 8 and 15 are definitive. Most dominant player ever? Not only was Woods No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for a record 683 weeks – a total of more than 13 years and more than twice the total of next-best Greg Norman – but in 2000, he achieved the highest point total ever, 29.40, which at the time nearly tripled the total of No. 2 Ernie Els. Woods’ streak of 142 consecutive cuts made (with Byron Nelson second at 113) marks him as the most consistent player ever, while his percentage of victories after holding or sharing a 54-hole lead (55 of 59 for 93 percent, including 14 out of 15 in major championships) makes him the greatest closer by a mile. His claim to “best golf ever played” is secure with his 15-stroke victory in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, while his outsized accomplishments in 2000 put him at the forefront of the ongoing debate for best year ever, alongside Jones’ 1930, Byron Nelson’s 1945 and Ben Hogan’s 1953.
Tied at the top
Woods has so many records that some – like his PGA Tour-record 52 consecutive rounds of par or better – too often get overlooked. That’s certainly true of a record that in terms of sheer accomplishment, scope and the all-time greats who have vied for it, deserves more recognition: most USGA championships.
There are currently a total of 14 such annual championships, with the four Open and the 10 amateur events representing the highest prestige and challenge in their competitive categories. The four players who have won the most USGA titles are all giants: Jack Nicklaus and JoAnne Carner with eight each, and Bob Jones and Tiger Woods, each with nine.
Although Woods has only rarely spoken about this record, he’s always been very clear about their significance. “I was always focused on USGA championships because they are our national championship,” Woods said. “I always wanted to be the United States champion. That title means something special to me.”
At every level, Woods has considered these USGA championships majors. As such he would build his game to handle their more stringent challenges and attempt to peak for them. Since his teenage years, embarking on a mission to win his next USGA event and entering – with his coaches – an otherwise solitary bubble of self-discovery and improvement has been one of his favorite exercises in golf.
Woods’ preparation had already been refined when at age 14 he entered his first USGA event, the 1990 U.S. Junior Amateur at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif.
“I was always more focused leading into a USGA event,” said Woods, who that year was beaten in the semifinals, 3 and 2, by Dennis Hillman, one of only three losses he would ever suffer in USGA amateur events, against 42 match-play wins. “I knew it was going to be difficult. I knew it was important to have all facets of my game ready: shaping shots, distance control, putting and short game.”
Like any young golfer with a dream, Tiger would play fantasy matches on the practice putting green, choosing as his “opponents” the only four-time winners of the U.S. Open. “Always against Jack, Hogan and Bobby Jones. Those are the three that I always had to beat,” he recounted in 2015.
Asked why he chose Jones, Woods was emphatic. “Because he’s got nine of them. Nine USGA titles. Four U.S. Opens, five Ams, so that’s pretty impressive.”
Whose 9 shine brighter?
So now that we know Woods has long competed against Jones, we have a debate. Whose nine USGA titles are more impressive? Let the hair-splitting begin.
The argument for Jones starts with his retirement from competition at age 28 with what were considered at the time a combined 13 amateur and professional majors (the total includes three Open Championships and one British Amateur). At 28, counting his three U.S. Amateurs, Woods had 11 majors, while Jack Nicklaus would have had nine. And few doubt that Jones’ early departure from competition cost him more majors.
There was no U.S. Junior Amateur when Jones played, and based on his winning the Georgia State Amateur at age 14 – the same year he got to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur – and the Southern Amateur at 15, he would have been capable of winning multiple junior titles.
Also in Jones’ favor is the fact that he won four U.S. Opens in 11 starts to Woods’ three in 21 starts to date, although few would dispute there is now far more depth in elite golf than there was in Jones’ day.
Woods’ case for the best USGA record begins with the U.S. Junior Amateur. For those who say that Jones showed more dominance by having three more wins in the two most important USGA championships, Woods’ accomplishment in the Junior stands as perhaps his most unassailable record.
Because of the typical disparities in physical maturity between adolescents only a few years apart, elite 17-years-olds (and now, 18-year-olds) generally have a disproportionate advantage over younger competitors. In USGA competition, perhaps the only bigger age-related disadvantage would be a player in his mid-60s competing against the best 50-year-olds in the U.S. Senior Open. This age factor in junior competition, the capriciousness of only 18-hole matches in Woods’ heyday (the final went to 36 holes in 2005), and the fact that the chronological window is the shortest of any USGA event is why the Junior Amateur has proven to be the hardest USGA championship to win multiple times (other than Woods, only two-time winner Jordan Spieth has done it since it debuted in 1948).
“The U.S. Junior is a different breed,” said Woods, who in his first victory became the youngest winner in history at 15 years, 220 days (since eclipsed). “There was such a difference in maturity from when I first qualified as a 14-year-old trying to play against 17-year-olds. They were hitting it by me 30 or 40 yards. So, for me to win it at 15 the first time was pretty awesome.”
Woods’ performance in the Junior Am is particularly revealing in terms of his extraordinarily precocious competitive temperament. The adolescent Jones fought his emotions and famously walked off mid-round at St. Andrews in his first Open Championship when he was 19. Woods, though he could flash anger in the aftermath of a bad shot (and still does), retained an eerie calm when it was time to play the next one. And the more important the shot, the more calm and locked in he seemed to become.
Those who saw Woods play as a teenager often commented that they were struck even more by his powers of concentration and ability to handle pressure than they were by his explosive physical game. As Tiger himself said in 2015, “I always felt I had the mental edge.”
No deficit too large
By the time Tiger left junior golf at age 18 and made the U.S. Amateur his major focus, he had developed physically and technically into a power player whose length and other skills were creating an ever-widening ability gap. As monumental as Jones’ record five U.S. Ams is, Woods’ winning ratio in the championship is higher. He got three wins in six attempts to Jones’ five in 13 attempts. And because those three were his final three, it meant Woods closed out his U.S. Amateur career by winning 18 straight matches.
Moreover, while Jones got all five of his USGA amateur victories within seven years, Woods got his six amateur victories in six consecutive years. Overall, Woods went six for 10 in USGA amateur events, losing in the semifinals of the 1990 U.S. Junior, then not qualifying for match play in the 1991 U.S. Amateur, then twice losing in the second round: to Tim Herron, 6 and 4, in 1992, and to Paul Page, 2 and 1, in 1993.
To this point it’s very close in the USGA race between Jones and Woods. Here’s the tie-breaker:
No player has ever competed in more dramatic, historically significant, consequential, memorable, interesting and exciting USGA events, and especially on Sundays, than Tiger Woods. It’s not even close. He seemed to perfect the role of cliffhanger hero, somehow repeatedly, astoundingly, miraculously saving the day. That pattern was particularly pronounced in all six match-play finals, when he came back from a deficit every time – including two giant ones.
“I think the one I’m probably most proud of is that I was down in every single final, and came back and won,” said Woods. “So it’s something I’ve always looked back upon and actually it’s served me well throughout the years. I figured if I could do it then, I could do it now.”
Jones never had a close final in the U.S. Amateur. His most thrilling cliffhangers occurred in the U.S. Open, where along with his four wins he was second four times. At Inwood in 1923, Jones double-bogeyed the 72nd hole but survived to win in a tense 36-hole playoff the next day against Bobby Cruickshank to win his first major. In the 1926 U.S. Open at Scioto, he birdied the last hole to win by one. In 1928, he lost a 36-hole playoff on the last hole to Johnny Farrell’s birdie. And in 1929, after leading by three shots with four to play, Jones triple-bogeyed the 15th hole at Winged Foot and had to dig deep to make a downhill, left-to-right 12-foot putt on the 18th green for par to get into a 36-hole playoff against Al Espinosa, whom he then defeated by 23 shots in the 36-hole playoff.
For the rest of the century and a little beyond, Jones’ putt at Winged Foot was generally considered the greatest in golf history. Grantland Rice’s 1954 retrospective in Sports Illustrated vividly conveyed the pressure Jones was under. “I doubt if any golfer had ever faced a moment so packed with tension. … The silence was complete… this putt meant more to Bob Jones than merely winning an Open. It meant the recapture of his golfing soul. It meant removing a dark stain from his pride, certain nationwide ridicule that was to follow failure.”
Jones made the putt with perfect dead weight. Rice said that O.B. Keeler later told him that if Jones had missed the putt on the 72nd hole, he never would have crossed the Atlantic the next year to attempt the Grand Slam.
Epic story at Torrey
Woods’ first two U.S. Open wins were far different. His 15-stroke victory at Pebble Beach may have lacked drama but was mesmerizing in its sheer virtuosity. “Well, it’s the best I’ve ever played,” he said in 2015. “For 72 holes, yeah, absolutely.” And by wide acclamation the best anybody has ever played.
At Bethpage in 2002, Woods went wire-to-wire to win by three before an admiring New York crowd in the first U.S. Open held after 9/11.
Of course, his third U.S. Open win, his ninth USGA victory so far, had it all. In 2008 at Torrey Pines, he went 91 holes to defeat Rocco Mediate, concluding the greatest display of resilience and mental discipline of his career.
The obstacles Woods overcame were massive. He had undergone surgery to fix loose cartilage in his left knee two months before but had opted not to repair the torn ACL discovered during the procedure, because it would have meant missing the U.S. Open. But atrophy that set in during his rehabilitation led to stress fractures in his left tibia.
After arriving at Torrey Pines, Woods received heavy massages day and night the rest of the week to reduce chronic swelling. He teed off in the opening round with a swing hampered by pain and physical compensations. But Woods made up for it with incredible putting that including two eagles on Saturday’s back nine that got him into the lead going into the final round. Still, Mediate’s inspired golf on Sunday left Woods facing a 12-footer over a worn-out 18th green to get into a playoff.
The putt had many similarities to Jones’ at Winged Foot. It was about the same length, and it held tremendous baggage. Woods had bogeyed two of the previous five holes to fall one behind, putting him in danger of blowing the championship. That looked likely after he drove into a bunker on the par-5 closer, and recovered poorly into the deep rough, from where he had 101 yards to the hole. Desperate for birdie, he hit an extra hard lob wedge hoping to produce enough spin to get the ball to stop on the front of the green.
Remarkably, he did, leaving himself the 12-footer. As he stood over the putt to tie, all that he had gone through in order to play – especially putting his future health in jeopardy with major surgery looming – was on the line. If he didn’t make it, none of it would have been worth it.
At that moment, Woods, who had made so many do-or-die putts with a “this can only go in” mindset, instinctively eased the pressure by choosing a fatalistic approach that emphasized process over result.
“That was actually one of the worst parts of the green,” Woods said after his round. “It's so bumpy down there. And I just kept telling myself two-and-a-half balls outside the right, but make sure you stay committed to it, make a pure stroke, and if it Plinkos in or Plinkos out it doesn’t matter, as long as I make a pure stroke.”
Seven years later, Woods recounted the experience after seeing his ball sneak in on the high side. “I just remember seeing the blue sky and I scream as loud as I possibly can and I can’t hear myself,” he said. “And then I saw the reaction later that night when I got back to the room, and I looked like a real idiot screaming like that.”
The next day, when Woods again birdied the 18th hole to catch Mediate and then beat him on the first extra hole, his putt on the 72nd hole arguably replaced Jones’ as the greatest in history.
The final chapter
By a narrow margin, we give Woods the edge over Jones for a more impressive nine USGA victories. Of course, Woods could remove all doubt by getting a 10th.
The goal is on Woods’ radar. “I’d like to break that. I’d like to get to double digits,” he said this summer. “It would mean a special place in history. Something that nobody has ever done. It would mean a lot.”
At 44, the most spectacular way would be to win another U.S. Open. But of course, there is another way, which his father verbalized after his son won his first USGA title. “Tiger would like to become the first man ever to win the U.S. Junior, Amateur, Open and Senior championships, something even Nicklaus hasn’t done,” Earl Woods said at the time.
It’s something to look forward to. Golf now has more than a reasonable expectation that, his body willing, Tiger will play after turning 50 in December 2025, at least in the U.S. Senior Open. If his usual pattern in USGA championships is followed, there will be drama.
Best of all, he will be going for another meaningful record. And what he’s always done better than anyone else is get them.
(Illustration: Tomasz Usyk)