— When I was a kid, I read every Choose Your Own Adventure book I could get my eyes on, a stack of paperbacks with new agey cover art and titles like You Are a Monster, Alien Go Home!, and other phrases that sound like they were borrowed from the signature pages of my junior high yearbook.
The series’ gimmick was that at the end of each chapter, your character was faced with a choice (of adventures!) and you’d turn to the corresponding page based on whichever plot twist you selected. You know, go to page 42 if you stay to fight the Fish People, page 68 if you flee in terror and stay right here if you want to stay single forever and probably die alone.
Now that the official part of his PGA season is over — unceremoniously ending at the PGA Championship with two sweat-soaked Dri Fit shirts, five double bogeys and the third missed major cut of his career — I wonder if Tiger Woods has decided which page he’ll flip to next. He’s scheduled to play the Australian Open in November and might add an additional event to appease President’s Cup captain Fred Couples, but what happens after that?
What if — and this is less likely than watching him give the Cribs cameras a tour of his walk-in closets — he decided to retire, take his rebuilt knee, partially reconstructed swing and 14 major titles and head home? Turn to page 81 if you want to trade your red shirt for a white flag and sign the scorecard on your career.
Would he be remembered as the greatest ever? Kind of. Wait! Hear me out.
Jack Nicklaus, with his 18 majors, 73 wins and countless pairs of plaid pants is still the king. Golf reveres the majors, putting way more emphasis on those four tournaments than on the others that surround them on the calendar. By now, Nicklaus has kissed more metal than Robocop’s girlfriend, but he wasn’t considered to be the best until he’d outmajored Bobby Jones.
"Jack got old No. 14 last week and officially became the greatest golfer who ever lived or died,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 1973. If you follow those rules — and golf loves its rules, no matter how archaic, no matter how arcane — Nicklaus is still on top of the lifetime leaderboard.
But Woods has always made golf stretch its boundaries to accommodate him, figuratively, like when it tried to appropriately recognize his Tiger Slam or literally, when Augusta National stretched itself to over 7,400 yards in an attempt to Tiger-proof the course.
If he never played another competitive round, Woods would have to be remembered as the most dominant golfer — if not the most awe-inspiring individual athlete not named Roger Federer — of all time.
Woods’ first major breakthrough was at the 1997 Masters, as a 22-year-old Tour sophomore whose lanky arms stuck out of his sleeves like a pair of six-iron shafts. He left Augusta with the first of his four green jackets and left the Masters with cleat marks all over its record book, becoming the youngest winner (and the first African-American) with the lowest four-round total (270; -18) and the biggest margin of victory (12 strokes).
But it would get better. Or worse, if you had to share a fairway with him. Woods had an eight-year run from 1999 (the season before the Tiger Slam) through 2007 (the season before his ACL went rogue for the first time) when he was untouchable.
He kicked grass — bent, Bermuda, Kentucky blue — and took names, launching drives, draining putts and projecting an air of invincibility that no one — not Nicklaus or Nelson, not Hogan or Hagen — ever had. And he did it all on longer, tougher layouts and against a deeper field of would-be challengers than they saw in their pre-Nike nightmares.
"During that eight-year stretch, Woods played 167 PGA events and won 54 times, a 32.33 percentage. Of the 36 majors from 1999 through 2007, Woods won 12 (33.33 percent), which topped Nicklaus’ mark of eight major wins from 1962-1970 (22 percent). Neither man could match Ben Hogan's 9 for 16 performance (56 percent) from 1946-1953, which included several injury-shortened seasons following his 1949 car accident. In 2000, Woods became the first player since Hogan to bag three majors in one year.
Twice Woods had a season scoring average of 67.79, better than Byron Nelson’s 68.33, a number that had been untouched and unmatched for 55 years. During those two years (2000, 2007), Woods was outscoring his nearest competitors by an average of 1.46 strokes per round.
But the gap between Woods and his competition was much more than a backswing and a half; that’s the biggest difference between Woods and the other men who have earned green jackets, bronze statues and highway markers in their hometowns.
Woods didn’t have a consistent rival, regardless of how many pre-major network promos promised us a showdown between Woods and Phil Mickelson or Sergio Garcia or David Duval (before his career detonated). Watching them try to compete with Woods was like watching a row of burnt out Chevy Novas attempt to put up a fight against an oncoming monster truck.
So Woods took aim at history, against neatly typed records and sun faded scorecards, and I’d be among those who’d say that he crunched that too.
“I would never deny that Jack Nicklaus is the greatest player who ever lived,” Gary Player told Golf Digest in 2002. "But Jack was never this dominant."
Six-time major winner Nick Faldo said, "I think one thing we could do is start a Tiger-less Tour. Then we others would have a chance of winning."
"You need competition," Tom Kite grumbled. "Otherwise it gets boring."
Kite would know. He’s the only man who finished as a major runnerup to both Woods and Nicklaus.
That kind of awe-drenched intimidation was unprecedented. It still is. Even if Woods does one day equal Nicklaus’ when it comes to Majors, he’ll never equal himself when it comes to unbeatability (Yes, I’m making up a word. If ESPN can invent new quarterback stats, I can play armchair etymologist).
Those days of domination, of showing up on the first tee and making the rest of the field feel like they’re playing for second, are over, another casualty of his back-to-back winless seasons.
"He just walked out there and he was a hard guy to beat," Greg Norman told the Mirror last week. "Now he’s trying to beat them instead of them trying to beat him. The kids growing up haven’t seen Tiger’s dominance."
He’s right. The early twentysomethings of the PGA Tour are like the next generation of Amity Island vacationers, the ones who shrug and roll their eyes when the survivors tell them about that summer when they had a shark problem. They have no idea how scary it used to be.
By the time the Augusta National staff starts force-blooming the azaleas, Woods will have endured a 46-month drought between major wins, outlasting his second longest dry spell by a full year.
It’s still possible the 35-year-old Woods could settle into his new swing and add to his resume; Nicklaus won six of his majors after age 35 and eight of Ben Hogan’s nine titles came after he’d hit the middle of his 30s.
On one hand, only five majors stand between Woods and topping Nicklaus. On the other hand, that's FIVE MAJORS, an entire career's worth of accomplishments for Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros. It’s one more than Mickelson has so far, one more than Ray Floyd ever got.
But Woods knows that’s what it would take to be considered the greatest player, not the greatest for a decade, not the greatest for the early '00s, but the G.O.A.T., the greatest of all-time. When asked who he thought that player was, Woods replied without hesitation. "Jack," he said. "He’s got 18. I’m at 14."
What can Woods do but turn the page and keep going?