When Augusta National was lengthened after the 2002 and ’05 Master, the phrase used by some pundits to describe the course alterations was “Tiger-proofing.”
That may have been a clumsy way to assess the changes to the course, but it was not entirely inaccurate.
Woods won the Masters four times in his first nine years as a pro, but he has been stuck on that number for the past dozen years. When he won for the fourth time in 2005, he appeared to be a lock to equal or surpass the record of six Masters titles held by Jack Nicklaus, but that obviously hasn’t happened.
A variety of surgeries kept Woods out of action for parts or all of but three seasons since 2008, and he appears healthy this year for the first time since the end of 2013.
But major back problems alone don’t answer why Woods has been stalled at four Masters since 2005 and 14 majors since ‘08, leaving him four short of the career mark set by Nicklaus. Woods was unable to add a 15th major in the three years he has been healthy since ‘08, while winning a combined 14 tournaments in that span.
Woods won five majors after his last Masters victory in 2005, with his inability to win in Augusta for a fifth time coinciding with the completion of the lengthening of Augusta National to its current yardage of around 7,450 yards.
That may be coincidental, but an examination of Woods’ record before and after the course was stretched out to its current length is striking.
Prior to 2006, Woods had established a definite pattern to his results in Augusta. He won the tournament four times from 1997-2005, all four times with scores ranging from 270 to 276. The five years he did not win the Masters during that stretch, he was a total of 4-under compared to 58-under in his four victories. Woods recorded a pair of top 10s during those five non-winning years, but was never a serious contender in either, finishing six shots behind the winner both times.
After almost a decade of either winning or failing to challenge for a victory, Woods settled into a much different routine during his annual appearances in Augusta. From 2006 to 2013, Woods placed third, second, second, sixth, and was fourth three times in a 4-year stretch along with a rare non-competitive showing in 2012.
One major difference in Woods’ finishes before and after his 2005 victory was his standing after 54 holes. All four of his Masters victories came when he led or shared the lead after 54 holes. He was never in that position again after 2005, and was only close to the lead going to the final round on a handful of occasions.
Until he failed to hold onto a 54-hole lead in the final round of the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, Woods had a perfect 14-0 record when leading or sharing the lead going to the final round. That streak ended in a loss to Y.E. Yang, but his career inability to win a major when trailing after 54 holes remains intact.
Woods has never won a major championship when he was not at least a co-leader after 54 holes, and he has been in position on numerous occasions to erase that career blemish, including a few times in Augusta.
In 2006, Woods was just two back of Phil Mickelson heading to the final round, but was unable to mount much of charge the final day and wound tied for third, three behind the winner.
Woods had an even better opportunity the next year, trailing Stuart Appleby by one and assuming the lead early in the final round when Appleby quickly faded. But he could no better than a 72 in difficult conditions, finishing two behind Zach Johnson, who closed with a 69. He was second again in 2008, ending up three in back of Trevor Immelman after trailing by six after 54 holes.
After beginning the 2009 Masters seven off the lead after 54 holes, Woods and playing partner Mickelson made huge surges up the leaderboard. Both got within a shot of first place before stalling near the finish, with Woods winding up four shots out of a playoff.
Since then, Woods has never finished closer than four shots behind the champion, even though he posted scores of 277 and 278 in 2010 and ’11, the only times he finished at least 10-under in the Masters and did not win.
With an exception or two, Woods has captured his 14 major championship titles with scores of at least 10-under par, several times well into double digits in the red. On quite a few of those occasions, Woods was the only player to go seriously low, most notably in the ’97 Masters (18-under to win by 12), the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (12-under to win by 15), the British Open that year at St. Andrews (19-under to win by eight) and the 2006 PGA at Medinah (18-under to win by five).
The last three of Woods’ four Masters triumphs did not come nearly as easily as his first. He had to outduel playing partner Mickelson and a charging David Duval in 2001, but did nothing particularly special down the stretch, taking advantage of mistakes by his two challengers. His 68 was Woods’ lowest final round score in his four wins
Woods began the final round in 2002 tied for the lead with some of game’s top players within striking distance, but a closing 71 was enough to give him a comfortable 3-stroke margin at the end of the day.
The only Masters victory for Woods that required some late Sunday heroics came in 2005, when he defeated Chris DiMarco with a birdie on the first playoff hole – No. 18. It was also the closest he ever came to failing to maintain a 54-hole lead, which he did not acquire until a furious finish to a rain-delayed third round earlier Sunday morning enabled him to overtake DiMarco, who led him by four after 45 holes.
The two were paired together in the final round and had already lapped the field, with Woods three in front of his only challenger. Although DiMarco outplayed Woods for most of the final round despite being out-driven by almost absurd lengths on almost every hole, Woods was still two in front after his memorable chip shot on 16 hung on the lip before falling in the cup for birdie.
But Woods butchered the final two holes, making bogeys on both, while DiMarco nearly pulled out the victory with a near miss chip-in birdie at the 18th. Woods righted himself with two quality shots and a 15-footer for birdie on the first playoff hole, the second of his three playoff wins in majors.
Unlike Mickelson, who has won four of his five major titles with late Sunday (or early Monday) heroics, Woods has rarely had to pull off a dramatic finish to win his 14 majors. His playoff win over Bob May in the 2000 PGA at Valhalla and his determined 91-hole victory in the 2008 U.S. Open over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines stand as the rare occasions when Woods needed to do something special late in a major to prevail.
Woods also has wins in three different events in the Atlanta area, beginning with his 1998 victory in the BellSouth Classic at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth. That was the only tournament he won that season, and also was his only appearance in the event, which came to an end in 2008. Woods did not approve of the tournament’s switch from May to the week before the Masters in 1999, leaving the tournament that year without a defending champion.
The next win for Woods in Atlanta came in a World Golf Championship event played at Capital City’s Crabapple Course, which had been open a short time prior to hosting the event. The tournament was played mostly in Europe for its first seven years before setting up shop at Doral in 2007 and then moving to Mexico in 2017.
Woods won the tournament seven times, the last two at Doral, where he won three straight times, including the last year the Miami course hosted its long-running PGA Tour stop in ’06.
Over his career, Woods has displayed a proclivity for excelling on specific venues, scoring just over half (41) of his 79 career PGA Tour victories on seven courses.
He won four times each at Augusta National, Doral and Muirfield Village (Memorial), five times at Cog Hill in Chicago (Western Open) and a staggering eight times at three courses each – Bay Hill, Firestone (WGC event) and Torrey Pines in San Diego, including his 2008 U.S. Open title.
That also applies to his 14 major titles. In addition to his four wins in Augusta, Woods won twice each at Medinah and St. Andrews along with victories on PGA Tour courses where he had won (Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines). Other than his impressive 2007 victory in the PGA at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Woods did most of his major championship damage on layouts that strongly favored big hitters, with his third U.S. Open title coming at Bethpage Black.
Woods made eight appearances between 1998 and 2013 in the Tour Championship at East Lake, winning in 2007 and finishing as runner-up on four occasions. The last year before East Lake’s putting surfaces were replaced, he shot a tournament record 23-under on a defenseless layout to win by eight shots over Zach Johnson, who carded a course-record 60 that week.
Largely because of his 14-1 record in majors when at least sharing the lead after 54 holes, Woods is considered golf’s greatest closer, but that did not transfer to East Lake. Twice he held the 54-hole lead other than his runaway win in ’07, and was unable convert, being overtake in the final round by Mickelson in 2000 and turning a 4-stroke advantage over Retief Goosen into a 4-shot deficit in ‘04, shooting 72 the final day to Goosen’s 64.
Woods also played twice at Atlanta Athletic Club in the PGA Championship without distinction, finishing just inside the top 30 in 2001 and missing the cut in 2011, one of his many injury-plagued seasons.