On the 30th of December 1975, Eldrick Tont Woods was delivered into this world in Cypress, California. The son of a retired lieutenant Army officer and the Thai woman he met while on a tour of duty in Vietnam, Woods wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he had a sensational swing, a precise putter and an insatiable drive in his DNA. He had the ultimate golf gene.
We all came to know him as Tiger, the nickname his father gave him. He was a product of his calculating father, Earl, and his passionate mother, Kultida, who nurtured their son with uncanny skill to become one of the greatest golfers to ever stride a fairway and lift a trophy, dozens of them. He won 14 majors and transformed the game.
For more than two decades Tiger Woods has been the story of golf, his every move, every stroke chronicled. There have been plenty of other great players during Woods' time—Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh—though none with Woods' extraordinary candlepower. He has been his sport's supernova, its calling card, its driving force, its face.
Yet so often over the last few years, Woods' bright light has flickered, dimmed, gone dark. Injuries, the consequence of millions of violent swings since his early teenage years, have devastated his body and destroyed his game. Back surgeries kept him out of golf altogether for a year and a half, and he returned to play in early December, as this issue went to press. Scandal has tarnished his reputation as a one-time role model.
Despite all the spin to the contrary, the game hasn't been the same without him.
But what if the game never had him at all? What if Earl Woods hadn't cut down a golf club and handed it to his son before he was even two years old? What if Kultida Woods hadn't installed her young son's intense drive and singular purpose? What would golf have been like as it crossed from the 20th to the 21st century?
"He is the only living player to win 79 times, and only one player has won more," said Tim Finchem, shortly before he stepped down as PGA Tour commissioner in October, whose reign corresponded with Woods' career. "He's the only active player to win 14 majors and only one player has won more. I love Jack Nicklaus beyond belief, but I have to put Tiger down as the greatest player to ever play.
"And the way he did it, and when he did it, when more and more good players were coming along, was incredible. It lifted all boats."
Tiger lifted, rowed and powered all boats. His was the hydroplane that rooster-tailed across the sports landscape and everybody and everything about the game of golf followed in his wake.
But suppose he hadn't come along at all. Suppose instead of a golf club he picked up a baseball glove or a tennis racket. Suppose instead of pounding the heck out of his fellow professionals on the course, he pounded the books and became a software engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, a poet. What would have the golf landscape been like?
So we're going to play what if, and take a look at what Tiger did, and imagine what might have happened had he not done it at all. It's not all that simple, taking Tiger out of the PGA Tour equation. Woods has won 79 official PGA Tour events, including his 14 major championships. Only Sam Snead has won more Tour events (82), and Jack Nicklaus more majors (18). No player has ever won more money than Tiger, who has career winnings of more than $110 million. No player has ever occupied the world No. 1 ranking for as many weeks as Woods, 683 in all.
So let's take all of these statistics out of his column, and see who would benefit. Let's imagine that Tiger never was Tiger. This is how the game might have played out.
With no Tiger Woods, Ernie Els' sparkling career might have shown even brighter, potentially giving him six majors instead of four.
As Woods was thundering to a 15-shot victory in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000, the most impressive performance in a major tournament in the history of the game, Els plugged along to finish second, tied with cigar-puffing Miguel Ángel Jiménez. With no Tiger, Els would have had a chance to win a playoff and his third U.S. Open title.
At the 2000 British Open at St Andrews a month later, Woods won his first Claret Jug by eight shots, the start of his Tiger Slam, where he won four consecutive majors, ending with the 2001 Masters. No Tiger, no Tiger Slam. But tied for second at St Andrews was Els and Thomas Bjørn. If Woods had not completely dusted the pair, Els would have gone into a four-hole playoff for the title and might have won his first Open Championship. (He did win two, in 2002 and 2012).
After that thumping, Els was philosophical. "I don't think if I had played my absolute best I could have beaten Tiger," he said at the time.
Els also finished second to Woods in three PGA Tour events, including a playoff loss in the 2000 season-opening Mercedes Championship.
No player spent more time in Woods' shadow than Phil Mickelson, who astoundingly has never been the No. 1 player in the world. Part of that is because he never played well enough at critical moments to seize the No. 1 ranking—even when Woods was missing from the game with injuries—but also because when he was playing well, Woods was right there, hovering above him. During 46 straight weeks from 2001 to 2002, Mickelson was No. 2 in the world, the first time he ever achieved that ranking. And who was above him the entire time? Tiger Woods. Without Tiger's presence, Mickelson would have been an unquestioned No. 1.
Mickelson turned pro in 1992, and it took 12 years for him to win the first of his five majors. He is one away from a career grand slam, needing only a U.S. Open victory, but he has fallen short again and again, holding a record six second-place finishes in the U.S. Open. One was to Woods, in 2002 at Bethpage Black. A world with no Woods could have meant a career grand slam for Mickelson, and six majors.
Lefty also finished second to Woods by one shot in three tournaments: the 1999 WGC Bridgestone Invitational, Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill tournament in 2001, and at Doral in 2005. To be fair, Mickelson won three majors during Tiger's era of dominance, The Masters in 2004 and 2006, along with the 2005 PGA Championship. By 2007, Woods' game began to deteriorate because of injury and his unfortunate sordid episode in 2009 involving his ex-wife, a car crash and a number of infidelities.
"Until I started to play my game better, Tiger owned me," Mickelson has said. There is no question that without Woods, Mickelson would have been the Tour's No. 1 star.
Chris DiMarco could have emerged in the upper echelon of the game. Instead, he had to be satisfied with relative anonymity and zero majors after his encounters with Woods.
He came tantalizingly close. In 2005, DiMarco led The Masters for the first two rounds, but lost in a playoff for the green jacket to Woods, who won the last of his four times at Augusta National. Who can forget Woods' chip-in on the 16th on Sunday, the ball posing for a photo op with its Nike swoosh in full display before falling into the hole for a birdie? Woods won the playoff by draining a long putt for birdie.
A year later, DiMarco finished second to Woods by two shots in the British Open at Royal Liverpool, in part because Woods had holed a shot from the fairway for an eagle two on a par 4.
DiMarco also fell victim to Woods in regular PGA events, finishing second to him by a shot in the 2005 Bridgestone Invitational, a tournament Woods owned in his career with eight total victories.
So just think what the career consequence might have been for DiMarco if Woods had not been there to thwart him. He would have had two major victories and a WGC victory to tack on to his three career PGA Tour wins. And his confidence level in winning those events might have propelled him to several more victories. Hall of Fame career? Possibly.
"There are a lot of guys who'd love to have some putts back or who kick themselves about bogeys and doubles down the stretch," said DiMarco a couple of seasons ago. "But I always made birdies coming in and just got beaten...by the best in the world."
Singh, Furyk and Love III
Three of the Tour's most accomplished players felt the heat of Tiger's exhaust over the years, finishing second to Tiger repeatedly, but never in a major championship. Vijay Singh finished second to Woods five times, including the 2001 Players Championship that featured Woods' "better than most" 40-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. Jim Furyk finished second to Woods four times, with a playoff loss in the 2001 Bridgestone. Davis Love III also had four second-place finishes to Woods, and had the privilege of seeing his talent up close and personal in Tiger's abbreviated rookie season of 1996. Love lost a playoff to Woods in the Las Vegas Invitational, Tiger's first win as a professional. Love finished second to Woods three more times.
Sergio and Monte
Two players who have long lived with the moniker "best player never to win a major" were denied by Woods. Sergio Garcia was only 19 when he burst onto the scene at the PGA Championship at Medinah in 1999 and found himself in a back-nine duel with Woods on Sunday. It was at the par 4 16th, after his ball came to rest at the base of a tree, that Garcia hit one of the most memorable shots in the game, closing his eyes as he struck a 6-iron, then running up the rise of the fairway to watch the ball come to rest on the green. It was exciting, but it wasn't enough. Woods came away with the first of his four PGA Championships, and Garcia is still searching for his first major.
Colin Montgomerie had already lost a playoff to Els in the 1994 U.S. Open, finished second two other times and lost a playoff to Steve Elkington in the 1995 PGA when he played the final two rounds of the 2005 British Open with Woods. He lost by three shots. A major eluded Montgomerie for his entire career.
There are journeymen who, had they not had to overcome the game's most accomplished player, could have found themselves with more accomplished careers. By 2000 Bob May was a kick around pro, bouncing between tours, and was having a decent season that earned him entry into the PGA Championship at Valhalla. May was just an enlisted man in the PGA Tour army while Woods was the five-star general. Yet they went toe-to-toe with spectacular shotmaking one Sunday nearly 17 years ago, with Woods eventually winning in a playoff. May missed out on a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour. With no Woods, May could have had a real PGA career.
Shaun Micheel wasn't quite a nobody when he finished second to Woods in the 2006 PGA Championship. Micheel had won the 2003 PGA but then steadily slipped off the radar until he shot up the leader-board at the 2006 PGA. By then Micheel was three years into his five-year exemption for winning that 2003 tournament. Another major victory—and the five-year free pass that comes with it—would have done wonders for his career. But Woods pulled away at Medinah, and Micheel eventually went away, relegated to the pile of firewood that Woods had chopped in his remarkable first decade as a pro.
Throw Woody Austin as yet another one of the logs in that cord of wood. Austin was a legendary self-deprecating pro who always admitted it was his head that held him back from being one of the game's more accomplished players. The one time Austin had a chance to win a major, the 2007 PGA, Woods was there to confirm that Austin just wasn't quite good enough. Austin finishing second, a mere two shots behind, leaving him forever consigned to the Woods pile of victims.
A golf world without Tiger Woods would have meant more than just the impact on these many individual careers. He forever altered the mindset of the modern golfer with his athletic approach to the game. He worked out religiously, carved himself into a physical specimen. Only Gary Player had ever earned a reputation as a fitness freak before Tiger came along. Once other players saw Tiger's extraordinary success, and linked some of that to his extraordinary body, they followed him into the gym like lemmings. And mentally, he walked right on to the Tour in 1996 expecting to win. He combined his athletic physique with a steely pysche, the platform of success for today's players.
"I think he changed the way young players approached the game and came to the Tour," says Jim Nantz, the CBS broadcaster who has chronicled Woods' career with both passion and admiration. "The way he built his body, the way he played without any fear, I think that's how Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth play. And how they play, and the rest of the newest generation plays, has Tiger's fingerprints all over it."
Woods also impacted and influenced the scope of the game in the television age. No player since the late, great, incomparable Arnold Palmer drew so much attention to the sport. The television camera loved him, though in truth he didn't love it back nearly as much as Palmer.
When Woods played, ratings soared. In research provided by CBS for regular PGA Tour events from 2003 to 2010, Tiger's presence in a tournament could as much as double the viewing audience. When he wasn't in the field, the ratings plummeted. And golf's all-time highest rated tournaments all occurred as Tiger was in the hunt, and usually winning.
Those ratings led to revenues. The cost for golf's television rights soared during the Woods era, climbing from about $80 million in 1997, Woods' first full season on Tour, to $280 million by 2011. That year, new nine-year agreements were reached with CBS and NBC that have a combined worth in the billions of dollars, and they were inked when Woods' game had gone south. But through the shrewd financial maneuverings of the PGA Tour, led by commissioner Tim Finchem, television ponied up, and in turn purse money skyrocketed.
What if Woods hadn't been there to light up the screen? His stardom was a pillar of the Tour's success. No Tiger yesterday, less money today.
And it's a stunning coincidence that the Golf Channel, the first single-sport cable television outlet, began in 1995 as Woods was in the midst of a dominating amateur career. With Palmer as an original backer of the 24-hour channel devoted to what was often considered an elitist sport, the Golf Channel had the benefit of Woods' beacon. It isn't too much of a reach to say that without Woods, the cable network's chances of success would have been considerably less. Without Tiger, you wouldn't be turning it on at 2 a.m. to watch a tournament in Dubai.
"He was the reason for the explosive increase in ratings that we saw for golf and a significant part of the increase in rights payments that we all paid," says Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports.
The rise of Tiger also corresponded to the reign of Finchem as the tour commissioner. He did an outstanding job in taking over from Deane Beman and growing the tour by leaps and bounds, and leaping and bounding that he had Woods in the driver's seat.
"I'll take another Tiger Woods tomorrow to dominate for 20 years, and hopefully he'll come back," says Finchem.
But there is a downside to having such a huge star in the golf galaxy. "He takes all the air out of media. He becomes the entire focus," said Finchem at the time. "It's understandable, but the one negative about it is that it is very difficult to create new stars in that environment. That last two or three years it's been easy: a lot of that is because of the quality of the players and how they handle themselves so well. A lot of it has to do with media exposure they can generate now."
The same question was asked about golf's all-time major leader when he left the game. "When Jack Nicklaus won his last tournament in 1986, and I became commissioner in 1994, the questions were what are you going to do now because you don't have a Jack Nicklaus?" says Finchem. "They may have glossed over Greg Norman, who was No. 1 in the rankings for more than 300 weeks."
Some asked Finchem how can one man dominate when he is only part of the fabric for 18 or so tournaments a year. "Tiger comes along in the fall of 1996 after turning pro after his second year and he dominates," he says. "All of these tournaments...have grown in almost every category year to year. The lesson is that fans love golf."
And they needed someone to love. If Woods wasn't as lovable as Palmer, he certainly was exciting. He was the Tour's raison d'être.
If he had stayed at Stanford to get a business degree, the PGA Tour and its players wouldn't have been counting nearly as much money as they do today.
In his prime, Tiger Woods beat up on every single player, but at the same time he lifted them all up.
The Tour without Tiger? It would have just been golf.
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor to Cigar Aficionado.