The toughest competition for Tiger Woods has always been history.
What captured the public’s attention when Woods won the first of his 15 majors, the 1997 Masters, was whether he could match or beat the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, long considered the gold standard in golf. That remains the ultimate target.
Until then, he landed a big one in Japan.
Woods was coming off a two-month break that began with a fifth surgery on his left knee, this one to repair minor cartilage damage. He opened his new season with three straight bogeys, and then followed with 27 birdies to win the Zozo Championship by three shots. It was his 82nd career victory, tying the record Sam Snead established in 1965, 10 years before Woods was born.
That’s three victories in 13 months, and no indication it will be the last one.
“The ball-striking exhibition I’ve seen the last two days is a joke,” said U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who played the final two rounds with Woods on a rain-soaked course northeast of Tokyo. “I don’t see him stopping anytime soon. Eighty-two is pretty special. I think there’s a lot more in store.”
Expect plenty of debate until Woods makes it 83 and has the record to himself.
Snead always argued he won more than 82 times during his seemingly ageless career that stretched across three decades. He also has team events, like the Inverness Four-Ball Invitational, counted among his official tally.
The PGA of America ran tournament golf in Snead’s time and there wasn’t a standard tour schedule like there is now. The PGA Tour researched the records and settled on 82 wins for Snead. Whatever arguments are made, that’s the official mark.
That’s what Woods matched, an astonishing feat considering the litany of obstacles he has faced — five surgeries on his knee, four surgeries on his back, the embarrassment of being caught in a personal scandal that cost him his marriage and universal corporate support, a mug shot from his DUI arrest two years ago when he mixed pain medications.
“It’s satisfying to dig my way out of it and figure out a way,” Woods said. “There are some hard times trying to figure it out, but I’ve come back with different games over the years, moving patterns, and this one’s been obviously the most challenging.”
Woods has been linked with Nicklaus his entire career. He has been mentioned alongside Byron Nelson, not only for breaking his record for consecutive cuts, but for twice getting at least halfway to Nelson’s unthinkable 11 straight victories. Woods reached seven in a row on the PGA Tour through 2006 at Torrey Pines.
But the better measure of his greatness is not the legends Woods is chasing.
It’s the players he is beating.
Generations are tough to compare even with simple numbers like 18 and 82. The game, the courses, the equipment, everything evolves. No one will ever know how Woods stacked up against Snead, Nelson, Ben Hogan or Bobby Jones. No one can say how Nicklaus would fare against today’s generation.
What made Snead’s record 82 victories even more impressive than the number alone was that no one else was close to him. When he won the last of his official victories at the Greater Greensboro Open in 1965, only two other players had more than 50 career wins — Hogan (64) and Nelson (52).
Woods now has 82 victories.
That’s more than Phil Mickelson (44) and Vijay Singh (34) combined. The other Hall of Famer from his generation is Ernie Els, who traveled and won worldwide but has 19 victories on the PGA Tour.
They all had access to the same game. Woods played better than anyone imagined.
Even after going through so many injuries that led to Woods going five years without a victory, his winning rate is still 22.8%. That’s the highest ever for the PGA Tour with a minimum of 200 tournaments. Hogan is next at 21.3%, followed by Nelson at 18.1%. Nicklaus is sixth at 12.2%.
Dustin Johnson, the winningest player of this generation, with 20 PGA Tour titles, has a winning rate of 7.7%.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan was in Japan and could only think, “Wow,” when he considered what Woods had done — and if it will ever be seen again.
“I’m a never-say-never kind of person, but you start looking back — the longevity, the consistency, what goes into it,” Monahan said. “You start looking at some of the underlying elements like the 142 consecutive cuts, the seven tournaments that he won five times or more, 11-time Player of the Year, all the stuff that you’ve documented.
“It’s just hard to imagine anybody doing that again.”