I started playing golf in the summer of 1994 half a year before entering my teens. I had wanted to begin earlier but a combination of my dad saying I'd learn bad habits (oh, dad!) and not having great access to quality golf courses kept me at bay. In the summer of '94 my family moved to the suburbs and for ~$120 annual pass* I was treated to unlimited golf at two town courses.
*A couple of things I appreciate now as an adult that I didn't as a kid were under 18 annual passes to places and the much lower prices of kid sized sneakers.
It was easy to get on the course back then. The flatter, much more wide open course was in the middle of town surrounded by baseball fields, a hockey rink, and easily accessible from the highway. The other course was tucked away in the corner of town near the river and was much more challenging but far less walked. I preferred the latter for obvious reasons--it had more character and you could finish a round of 18 in 3 hours.
Later that fall as I was learning the game a young Tiger Woods entered his freshman year at Stanford University.
For a couple years I don't think I ever reserved a tee time nor waited longer than a group or two to tee off. I walked 18 alone a few times in summer evening sun, just me and the course, hearing whispers in the trees like a freaking USGA commercial. If you haven't walked 18 by yourself try it at least once. Keep your phone in your bag.
You can imagine how Tiger Woods was right in my wheelhouse. My first solid memory was watching him win his second straight U.S. Amateur in the late summer of '95. Woods made the cut in The Masters that year and competed in the U.S. and British Opens too, and while I'm sure I saw bits of those tournaments, I specifically remember Tiger holding up the Amateur trophy and watching his entire final round.
J.D. Cuban, Allsport
Although it felt like Tigers' ascendancy was like a rocket build by NASA in collaboration with Mad Max: Fury Road it actually took a while before we saw Tiger turn into a near invincible death machine on the course. That's only because no one knew just how dominant he would become at such a young age.
Woods won a couple tournaments late in 1996 during his first year as a pro, then started out '97 by winning at The Mercedes Open, and famously obliterating the field at The Masters for his first major, in addition to 2 more wins that year. Further, his ace on the 16th during his second appearance of the year at The Phoenix Open is probably as good of an example as any how Woods was changing notions about golf.
For 1998, Tiger would win only 1 tournament, although he notched 13 top-10 performances. At this point though, Woods was turning 23 years old. For comparisons sake, Jordan Spieth will be turning 23 in late July of 2016. Both Spieth and Rory McIlroy have put together early 20's resumes that rivaled Tiger up to this point.
The next 3 seasons though, sweet mercy, I don't think anyone will ever play golf that well for that long. Allow me to post Woods' finishes from June 1999 through June 2001:
1, 3, 1, 7, 1, 37, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 18, 2, 1, 2, 5, 4, 1, 1, 23, 1, 11, 1, 1, 1, 3, 2, 5, 8, 5, 13, 4, 13, 1, 1, 1, 3, 1.
20 victories, 5 Majors, wins in 6 straight appearances, wins in at least 3 straight appearances on three separate occasions, the lowest scoring average ever for a year (2000, 67.79), and the owning all 4 Majors at the same time aka the Tiger Slam.
That happened, and then 51 more victories and 8 Majors were still to come. Among the post-2001 run were 7 straight wins to end 2006 and begin 2007, plus 17 wins in 28 appearances culminating in the 2008 U.S. Open won by Tiger while playing with a torn knee ligament and double stress fracture in his left leg.
Tiger hasn't won a Major since--just over 7 years ago now.
Is it over? Has the dream officially died now?
Woods crashed his SUV and had his personal life torn apart beginning on November 27, 2009. There's been a lot of talk after Tigers' 80 & 76 rounds recently at the U.S. Open in Chambers Bay to take a lot of time off to find his game. It's unfortunate because 2010 would have been the perfect time to recover, literally go into hiding, and come back 15 months later a new man.
The thing is though, Woods regained some mojo after his divorce but it took a while (should have taken time off!) as he went winless in 2010 and 2011. But then there were 8 wins in 2012-13 to go with 17 top-10 finishes. The old Tiger wasn't back but he was among the best in the game again.
The last season and a half have seen Tiger an absolute mess, though. Just 14 appearances, with 3 withdraws, 4 cuts missed, and finishes of 80, 25, 69, 17, 69, and 71. He put together a couple nice rounds this past weekend at the Greenbrier Classic but can't find any consistency finishing tied for 32nd.
Is now the time to take a long break from the game? Can Woods even afford it at his age?
Tiger will turn 40 this December. Realistically, judging by the history of the game, he has another half decade to win more Majors. Maybe there's still some magic left but it's just as likely with the beating his body has taken that winning Majors into his mid-to-late 40's will be near impossible. He's literally been dealing with injuries for 8 straight years, has lost his swing, moved onto his 4th swing coach, and is now supposed to turn it back on and defeat a PGA field that is as deep and talented as ever?
It's almost a near certainty that Tiger won't be catching or passing Jack Niklaus' record for most career Majors now. No one has won one in their late 40's which gives Tiger roughly 20 Majors left--he'll need to win a quarter of those entered to pass The Bear.
I guess it's sad that the best case scenario is that Tiger keeps plugging away over the next decade and picks up at least 4 more PGA Tour wins to pass Sam Snead for the all-time career mark. Are there even 10 more wins left in the tank? Is it absurd and ridiculous to think Tiger is bound to that ceiling now?
It could be a frustrating future for Woods but it'll be interesting to see how much his injuries factor into his legacy. At least in my eyes it's always seemed like Tiger is perpetually young, however, you look at Jack Niklaus and he won only 5 tournaments beginning in the 1979 season onward when he turned 39 years old. Phil Mickelson has been playing about as well as you can expect in your 40's and he's been limited to 5 wins, although it does include 2 Majors.
No one really keeps playing at a super high level past their 30's and that fate looks to have befallen Tiger Woods, as well. It might be hard for him, for his fans, and for the game to come to grips with him just being another guy out there but we'll always have his incredible pre-2009 career as the best run the game has ever seen.