So today is supposed to be the day before The Masters gets rolling at Augusta National Golf Club. Actually, there would be some action going on this day with the Par-3 Contest. However, as we all know, The Masters has been postponed until November due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which means that defending champion Tiger Woods gets to hang on to his green jacket a little while longer.
It’s been 25 years since Tiger Woods made his major championship debut at The Masters in 1995. So without the beautiful scenery of Augusta to look at this week, my mind got wandering. Had Tiger Woods’ father, Earl, never driven his son toward the game of golf, how different would the game look today? Yes, the game would still be here as golf existed long before little Eldrick Woods came into the world on December 30, 1975. But let’s get real. It wouldn’t look like it does today.
Thanks to Tiger, the purses are bigger. The TV deals are bigger. Legitimately try arguing those points and you’ll just look foolish. In Tiger’s prime, he was as close to being unbeatable as anyone has ever been in this game. Like it or not, he changed the game for better and for always. He inspired essentially this entire generation of players that now dominate the game, players such as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth (maybe not lately), Justin Thomas, and Jon Rahm. But what about those guys that actually had to deal with Woods at his best? How would their careers have changed had Tiger never taken up golf?
Now, I’m not saying that taking Tiger out of the equation just bumps everyone up one spot in the tournaments in which he played, although I’ll certainly take a look at a couple of scenarios in which a few guys win more majors, or just a major at all in one particular case. All of the players on this list had good, if not great careers. But there could’ve been so many more opportunities had Tiger Woods not been around. So without any golf right now, let’s dive in and have a little fun.
My guess is that the answer most people would have to the question this article’s title asks would be Phil Mickelson so I’ll start there. Like Tiger Woods, Lefty was a phenom in his own right. I mean, the guy won a PGA Tour event as a 20-year-old amateur in 1991. To date, he owns 44 PGA Tour victories, good for ninth on the all-time list, and five major championship victories. He’s already in the Hall of Fame and deservedly so.
But I honestly don’t know if he has much more than that without Tiger Woods around. I truly think that watching Tiger take his place as the best young gun in the game only fueled Mickelson to get better. Perhaps the only thing that Phil achieves without Woods around is the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, a spot Mickelson amazingly never reached, peaking at No. 2.
From 2002 to 2006, Chris DiMarco was one of the best players in the world, reaching as high as sixth in the world rankings in 2005, the same year he finished runner-up to Tiger Woods at The Masters, one of just many heartbreaks he’d suffer in his career at the hands of Mr. Woods. DiMarco was one of those gritty guys, constantly hanging around and posting top-10 finishes but never quite sealing the deal. The Masters in 2005 may have been his most heartbreaking loss as he took Tiger to the brink, nearly chipping on the 72nd hole to win before losing in sudden death. But that wasn’t the only time that DiMarco got outdueled by Woods.
At The Open Championship in 2006 at Hoylake, Tiger was again paired with DiMarco in the final round. Down just a stroke through 13 holes, DiMarco had to watch Tiger make three straight birdies to pull away. Brutal. Chris DiMarco had just three PGA Tour wins in his career, a career that would look much different with a couple of major championships in his pocket.
While many would say that Phil Mickelson was the second-best player during the Tiger Woods prime era, I’m actually inclined to disagree as I’d probably go with Ernie Els for that title. Sure, he only has 19 PGA Tour titles as compared to Mickelson’s 44. But he has 28 European Tour titles, good for seventh on the all-time list, and, in my humble opinion, that tour was much better then than it is now.
When Tiger burst onto the scene, Els had already won a U.S. Open, doing so in 1994 at Oakmont. Soon after Woods won his first Masters title in 1997, Els won the U.S. Open again, this time at Congressional, a win that briefly moved him to the top spot in the world rankings. When Tiger Woods had arguably the greatest season in history in 2000, it was Els who was right there behind him, finishing runner-up to Woods at both the U.S. Open and The Open Championship. Els also finished second to Woods, losing in a playoff in an amazing duel at Kapalua to begin that season. Els is still a Hall of Famer and has four majors to his credit. But think about how many more he could have had.
Along with Mickelson and Els, Vijay Singh was one of the best players during the Tiger Woods prime era. He was actually the only player not named Tiger Woods to claim a major in 2000, winning The Masters by three strokes over…Ernie Els. Geez, Ernie was really good that year. Singh was also the only player not named Tiger Woods to hold the No. 1 world ranking in the first decade of the new millennium. Singh was a force in the golf world but was constantly behind Tiger. He was the victim of Tiger’s “better than most” putt at The Players Championship in 2001, losing by one, one of five times he finished runner-up to Woods.
While all of the players mentioned above could lay claim to being the one that benefits the most from no Tiger, I truly think Sergio Garcia takes the title here. At just 19 years old, Garcia burst onto the scene at the 1999 PGA Championship in that famous duel on the back nine with Woods at Medinah, just a few months after turning pro after being the low amateur at The Masters. The young Spaniard gave Woods all he could handle but lost by one, giving Tiger his second major championship. Sergio then had to watch Tiger win 11 more before he ever got one of his own, finally winning his first and only major title at The Masters in 2017, his 74th appearance at a major. Tiger added a 14th major title at Augusta a year ago.
In the alternate universe that doesn’t include Tiger Woods, I think Sergio Garcia actually almost becomes Tiger Woods. I think he wins that PGA Championship in 1999, which would have made him one of the youngest players to ever win a major. He takes that confidence and goes on a tear. So he may not have gotten to Tiger’s 14 but I think he at least wins seven or eight, which makes him one of the best players in history. Instead, he’s just a very good player that had a solid career but never truly lived up to the hype.
I’m sure there are a few guys that I missed here but you get the gist. Maybe Bob May actually wins that PGA Championship in 2000. But who knows? The point is that if Tiger Woods never picks up a golf club, the game looks completely different. But he did and the sport hasn’t been the same since his arrival. And love him or hate him, that’s a really good thing.