I was eleven years old, chocolate ice cream smeared across the edges of my mouth, sitting inches away from the TV screen and making all kinds of crazy deals with God.
“I promise to do all of my homework…I’ll clean my room…I’ll do everything my mom says,” I pleaded.
“Just let Tiger win.”
The final round of the 2005 Masters was the first golf telecast that I watched in its entirety. (It was also, incidentally, the day I met my good friends Ben and Jerry). As the sun slowly worked its way across the sky, scattering golden rays of light through the ancient pines of Augusta National, I became obsessed—hooked on the game of golf, fascinated by the magic of the Masters and simply mesmerized by the aura of Tiger Woods.
In the course of watching Woods’ epic duel with Chris DiMarco on the back nine, I’m not sure exactly why I became such a diehard Tiger fan. Maybe I knew he was arguably the best athlete in the world and I just jumped on the bandwagon. Or, perhaps, I gravitated towards Woods because he was the golfer out there who looked the most like me.
At any rate, I remember pressing my face against the TV when Tiger’s chip shot on the par-3 16th teased the edge of the cup before letting out a scream that might have been heard a hundred miles away in Augusta. As he has done so many times, Tiger turned a game of knocking a ball in a hole on really short grass into a mystical experience.
Those moments, though, have been few and far between in recent years. It’s still hard for me to believe that Woods has not won a green jacket since that day in 2005. Thanks to Tiger, I’m starting to feel old at the age of 20.
Prior to the scandal in 2009, breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships seemed like it would be a mere blip on the radar of Tiger’s bigger quest to challenge the likes of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali as the greatest athletes of all time. Now, with his invincibility shattered and his inability to knock down a six-foot putt when it matters most—the trademark of vintage Tiger—Woods stands in a position unthinkable a decade ago: set to go down as not even the greatest player in his sport.
But it’s not too late. As Nicklaus demonstrated at the 1998 Masters and Tom Watson showed at the 2009 Open Championship, golfers in their late fifties can still play at the highest level. Tiger still has every opportunity to right the ship and hit that magic number of 19; with that being said, the pressure will continue to mount the longer Woods continues his major drought—currently at four years. As a result, it’s absolutely crucial for him to close out the competition at a major once again sooner rather than later.
And 2014 will be the perfect year to do it.
In my opinion, the most telling insight into Tiger’s success—one that’s gone largely ignored by many golf analysts—is the fact that he dominates courses he likes and rarely wins on tracks that don’t quite fit his eye. His 79 PGA tour victories have come at only 25 different locations.
That’s why 2014 is so important. All four of this year’s major venues are courses at which Tiger has found success in the past.
Even in his so called “down years” in the aftermath of his scandal, Woods has pulled out top-10 finishes at the Masters in 2010, 2011 and 2013. He clearly loves Augusta and the course loves him back. No matter the state of his game entering April, he always seems to find the magic at Amen Corner.
The U.S. Open this year returns to Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, where Woods finished third to Payne Stewart in 1999 and second to Michael Campbell in 2005. Of the four major venues in 2014, Pinehurst is the only course where he’s failed to win, but he’s come excruciatingly close in the past.
Across the pond, the Open Championship returns to Royal Liverpool, one of the two venues where Tiger has previously hoisted the Claret Jug. His emotional 2006 victory on the course was his first major win following the death of his father.
Finally, the major season ends with a return to Valhalla in Louisville, Ky. where Tiger famously defeated Bob May in a playoff in 2000 after forcing a playoff on the 72nd hole. The win was Tiger’s third straight major victory in 2000 and showcased Woods at the height of his power.
It’s also worth noting that Tiger is now 38—the same age Nicklaus was when he earned that 15th major. If Tiger hopes to at least keep pace with the Golden Bear, then 2014 must be the year to turn things around.
Will Tiger use any of these familiar courses to get back on track in his quest to catch Jack? That remains to be seen. He could easily go another year without getting that elusive 15th major. Alternatively, he could find his form and run the table, win on four courses he loves and take his place amongst the gods with major number 18 at Valhalla.
A die-hard Tiger fan such as myself can only dream.
To this day, Vihan Lakshman still smears chocolate ice cream all over his face whenever he watches the gentleman’s game. Tell him how to correctly eat ice cream and suggest some better Ben & Jerry’s flavors that he can spread on his mug at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.