Tiger Woods left Sam Snead’s wins record in his rearview years ago
Some numbers illuminate glory. Like 82, the benchmark for most PGA Tour victories that Tiger Woods tied this weekend. Or 15, which places him second for most major championships. Or 683, his tally of weeks spent as world No. 1, more than twice that of his nearest competitor.
Even more compelling at times are the numbers that speak to guts.
Like the 1,876 barren days between wins 79 and 80, two peaks separated by a valley whose walls once seemed insurmountable. Or the 3,954 days that elapsed between his 14th major victory and his astonishing 15th earlier this year at Augusta National. Or 1,199, the lowly, lonely position in the world ranking to which he had fallen less than two years ago.
Surviving all three threats that have destroyed lesser athletes — a broken body, a broken game, a broken private life — Tiger Woods has become sport’s most improbable symbol of longevity.
Two months shy of his 44th birthday, he is breaking performance records while beating up on the kids who thought he was on the canvas a half-decade ago, and transformed the traditionally ceremonial role of Presidents Cup captain into a combat position instead. At Royal Melbourne in December, Woods will play for himself. He always has.
What makes win No. 82 so remarkable isn’t the manner of the victory —we’ve long since become accustomed to seeing Woods cruise past a quality field as he did at the Zozo Championship in Japan — but the fact that few people genuinely expected to witness even wins 80 and 81. It was August 2013 when he notched No. 79 at the Bridgestone Invitational. Then came injuries. Surgeries. Personal travails. Chipping yips. Scorecards more worthy of a 10-handicap. A mug shot. A DUI plea. Treatment. Each episode brought an avalanche of career obituaries.
Even Woods himself wondered aloud if he was finished. “I don’t know what my future holds,” he said two years ago with an air of resignation.
He probably didn’t know what Japan held either. Woods hadn’t competed in nine weeks, was fresh off yet another procedure on his left knee, and ended last season with a run of desultory form after the Masters. But as the Zozo wore on, more numbers made the win seem inevitable.
Seven times he had won his first start of the season, which the Zozo was. He had never lost after opening a tournament with consecutive rounds of 64 or better. When he gets his nose in front at the halfway stage, he’s like Seabiscuit, with a staggering 84.8 percent conversion rate. Leading by three or more strokes after 54 holes, he was 24 for 24. Really, who was going to stop him?
For perspective on how much has changed since Woods’ first win 8,421 days ago, Fox News Channel didn’t even exist then. It debuted one day after he won in Las Vegas, a victory that elevated the rookie to 75th in the world ranking. Of the world’s top 25 golfers that same week, Phil Mickelson stands alone in not yet having been consigned to the PGA Tour Champions or the TV booth. Some are now retired even from the senior circuit.
“I’ve put myself up there with a chance to win on a number of occasions,” Woods said, rioting in understatement after his wire-to-wire, rain-delayed triumph in Japan. “It’s been a long week. Five days at the top of the board is a long time.” Twenty-three years at the top is a long time too.
The man Woods tied in the record books, Sam Snead, displayed tremendous longevity himself. His 82nd win came at age 52. Or his 84th, if you listened to Sam. Record-keeping was lax back then and a long-ago review had revised his total downward from 84, which he griped about for the remainder of his days. When Snead died in May 2002, Woods had 31 PGA Tour victories, his most recent having come five weeks earlier at the Masters. The old legend died four days shy of his 90th birthday surely believing his record was safe.
His protestations aside, even the 82 wins accorded Snead is generous. A half-dozen were against fields of fewer than 15 players, some against fields so small that every competitor could have shared a ride to the course. There were a few 36-holers, an 18-holer, a smattering of team events. There are member-guests more competitive than some of the events Snead is credited with. In truth, Woods left the Slammer’s record in his rearview years ago.
There will be myopic fans who think No. 82 is diminished because it didn’t happen somewhere along the U.S. Interstate network, that it was more than 7,000 miles from home and but for weather delays would have occurred in the middle of the night. But Japan was a fitting stage. It cements the PGA Tour’s global footprint in a region where fans have an unquenchable thirst for golf, as opposed to some regular Tour venues where fans are simply thirsty.
This is a record that seemed ordained to one day belong to Woods. He only gets four shots a year to edge closer to Jack Nicklaus’ gold standard in the majors, which remains tantalizingly out of reach. But will it remain so? No athlete has reinvented himself more often than Woods, and few have clawed back from such depths. Making predictions about Woods has been shown to be a fool’s errand, but here’s another: 82 will become just another milepost on a road that has proven much longer than most of us, including Woods, dared dream.