Is Tiger Woods the GOAT of Sports?
Earl Woods had big plans for his son, Eldrick Tont "Tiger" Woods. But when Earl said Tiger would "change the world" at the start of his professional golf career in 1996 as a 20-year-old, the prediction was met with more than its fair share of skepticism.
Tiger Woods has proved his father right by winning 15 majors and 82 PGA tournaments (and counting) to become one of the wealthiest athletes in history and make an impact beyond the game.
Is Woods perfect? No. But he might be the most influential athlete of all time. Here’s how Tiger Woods created a legacy that's greater than golf, in his own words and the words of those around him.
He Has Won 15 Majors
Tiger's take: "You’re going to go years where you just don’t win. That’s OK, as long as you keep trying to improve."
What the gallery thought: "If you're one of the fortunate few on this Earth with a pass to enter the gates of Augusta National on Masters Sunday, you don't leave early. You just don't. If it's a Masters Sunday when Tiger Woods is near the top of the leader board, you really don't leave early." — Willie Geist, TV host
Bottom line: Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus' 18 major titles are among the most hallowed career records in all of sports. It sits alongside the NFL rushing leader, NBA leading scorer and MLB home run king, to name a few.
Woods' pursuit of Nicklaus’ record started the moment his father put a club in his hands as a child and reached a fever pitch when he won his 14th major by the time he was 33 years old.
After Woods ended an 11-year winless streak at the Masters in 2019 — his fifth Masters title — the pursuit of Nicklaus' record is still very much alive.
He’s in the Overall GOAT Discussion
Tiger's take: "I’ve always known where I wanted to go in life."
What the gallery thought: "When you want to be the best, you gotta do something extra. You can’t just do the same thing that everybody else is doing. All the great ones do that." — Lee Trevino, retired pro golfer
Bottom line: When we discuss the greatest athletes of all time, the discussion usually is about a particular sport. Who was the best in basketball? Football? Baseball? It’s a wide-ranging argument.
But when we get down to who was the greatest athlete of all time, ever, the pool of candidates becomes much smaller. Athletes like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, Pele are in the conversation,
And when we bring golf into the conversation, we bring in Tiger Woods. And you can make his case alongside any of those mentioned.
His Backstory Is Epic
Tiger's take: "In retrospect, golf for me was an apparent attempt to emulate the person I looked up to more than anyone: my father. He was instrumental in helping me develop the drive to achieve, but his role, as well as my mother's, was one of support and guidance, not interference."
What the gallery thought: "I met Tiger Woods when he was younger. He's amazing — obviously technically, but his mental approach, too. He's really something." — John Wooden, former UCLA men’s basketball coach
Bottom line: There has never been an athlete with a backstory as unique as Tiger Woods. His mother, Kutilda, was a dedicated Thai Buddhist and his father, Earl, was an African-American war hero who did two tours in Vietnam.
Earl was also a superb, single-digit handicap golfer who hit balls into the net in the garage while Tiger watched as a baby. When Tiger began to walk, Earl filed down a child’s club for him.
At 18 months old, on his own, Tiger began hitting golf balls into the net. The rest is history.
We’ve Known Him His Whole Life
Tiger's take: "I did envision being this successful as a player, but not all the hysteria around it off the golf course."
What the gallery thought: "This young man is going to be to golf what Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert are to tennis." — Jim Hill, former NFL defensive back and longtime Los Angeles-based television sports broadcaster
Bottom line: Most sports fans above a certain age have a distinct first memory of Tiger Woods — seeing him on "The Mike Douglas Show" at 2 years old while his father, Earl, watched him hit shots off a tee alongside Douglas, comedian Bob Hope and legendary actor Jimmy Stewart.
After that, there was never an extended period of time in his life when Woods has been out of the public eye.
His rise to No. 1 in the world? His fall from grace? His comeback? We were there the whole time.
He Was a Prodigy
Tiger's take: "My father never once told me I had to play golf or even asked me if I wanted to play. I always was the one asking him, because it was fun. I thought it was fun. As a kid, that’s all I knew."
What the gallery thought: "When Tiger was 6 months old, he would sit in our garage, watching me hit balls into a net. He had been assimilating his golf swing. When he got out of the high chair, he had a golf swing." — Earl Woods, father
Bottom line: Prodigies in sports, music, science have always fascinated us. Tiger Woods was a prodigy on a level comparable to Mozart, Pablo Picasso and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
He played his first hole when he was 18 months old. He won his first pitch-and-putt competition at 2 years old — in the 10-and-under division. He was the youngest World Junior Optimist champion at 8 years old and the youngest U.S. Junior Amateur champion at 15 years old.
And by 20, Tiger had won three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships and an NCAA championship at Stanford.
He Won the Natty
Tiger's take: "I really enjoyed Stanford. I enjoyed being stimulated by the students and professors. Some were geniuses, and others were Olympic athletes. It's amazing how well-rounded they are. That's what's so cool about it. You must soak up that experience. It was one of the best times in my life."
What the gallery thought: "He made people who'd been No. 1 look like they didn't stand a chance. If he was playing halfway decent, it was kind of soul-crushing for a lot of guys to know, 'I could play my best and get lapped by this guy.' " — Joel Kribel, Stanford teammate
Bottom line: The one part of Tiger Woods' golf career that seems to get overlooked on a regular basis are the two years he spent playing at Stanford University alongside best friend Notah Begay and PGA golfer Casey Martin.
Woods was dominant on a level that places him among the greatest collegiate golfers of all time. He was a two-time first-team All-American, two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year and won the 1996 NCAA championship.
College golf coaches should take note. Stanford coach Wally Goodwin began recruiting Woods when he was in junior high school by sending him handwritten notes.
He Has Cross-Generational Appeal
Tiger's take: "To my kids, I’ve always been 'The YouTube Golfer.' … Hopefully seeing me win (the Masters) is something that will mean more and more to them as they get older."
What the gallery thought: "By winning his fifth Masters, his 15th major and 81st career title, Tiger Woods introduced a whole generation (maybe two) to what Tiger Woods really means." — Rachel Bleier, Golf.com
Bottom line: Rare is the athlete who has a career long enough that his or her exploits connect with multiple generations. Tiger Woods dominated for a decade, connecting golf fans, both old and young, from the late 1990s to the late 2000s.
As his legend started to fade and a new generation of millennials began to come of age (including Woods' own daughter), he was just "The YouTube Golfer."
But with his legendary win at the Masters in 2019, a whole new generation can tell their own stories of his greatness.
Tiger's take: "Growing up, I came up with this name: Cablinasian. Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian. That’s Cablinasian."
What the gallery thought: "Our view is that Woods represents the best of the American dream. That we are a nation of immigrants — even forced to come as slaves — whose descendants have sloughed off old identities to become something new. He justly rejects attempts to pigeonhole him in the past. Tiger Woods is the embodiment of our melting pot and our cultural diversity ideals." — Chicago Sun-Times, editorial board, 1997
Bottom line: The curiosity over Woods' background after he became a superstar was bound to include interest in his heritage — something he embraced, proudly, as a multiracial child from multiracial parents.
After winning his first major at the Masters in 1997, Woods was identified as the first African-American to win there, something he rejected because he felt it discounted his mother’s background, which was a mix of Thai, Chinese and Dutch.
In a sport that has always been notoriously slow to embrace change and diversity, Woods was a game-changer.
Tiger's take: "If money titles meant anything, I'd play more tournaments. The only thing that means a lot to me is winning. If I have more wins than anybody else and win more majors than anybody else in the same year, then it's been a good year."
What the gallery thought: "The most stunning part is that Woods is only 33 years old — he might have 15 years of competitive golf left in him, and 30-plus years of designing courses. This is only the first billion for Woods." —Kurt Badenhausen, Forbes.com, 2009
Bottom line: In 2009, Tiger Woods became the first athlete to pass the $1 billion mark in career earnings through playing winnings, endorsement deals and investments.
In 2019, money.com estimated that Woods' career earnings had passed $1.5 billion dollars and he had a net worth of $800 million. That total includes Woods having to pay out a reported $110 million divorce settlement to ex-wife Elin Nordegren in 2010.
He Makes Everyone Better
Tiger's take: "The only reason I enter an event is to win. It’s not to make the cut or finish top 10 or even second. It’s to win the event."
What the gallery thought: "What’s the saying? A rising tide raises all boats? (Tiger Woods) certainly is a rising tide, and he’s certainly going to raise the level of the game for everyone around him." — Jack Nicklaus, legendary golfer
Bottom line: In team sports, the greatest athletes of all time usually elevate the games of the people they play with. In individual sports, you can use that same philosophy when it comes to how the greatest players elevate the play of their rivals.
Woods may have done this better than anyone, ever, and turned rivals like Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh into household names. Without playing against Woods, it’s hard to think some of these players would have become the household names they’ve become.
Everybody Gets Paid
Tiger’s take: "I get to play golf for a living. What more can you ask for? I get paid to do what I love."
What the gallery thought: "When I came out on tour, in 1992, I won the Tucson Open … and the winner’s check was $180,000. I remember thinking in the mid-90s, 'I wonder if someday we’ll play for a million dollar first-place check. Probably not in my lifetime, but I hope we do.' And now we do every week, and that’s because of Tiger." — Phil Mickelson
Bottom line: Tiger Woods, who has a net worth approaching $1 billion, has been able to make insane amounts of money for everyone and everything associated with him — endorsements, opponents, caddies, etc. This is called "The Tiger Effect."
Out of the top 10 highest-paid golfers of all-time (playing earnings only), Woods is No. 1 at $122 million, and six of the next nine on the list were his contemporaries.
When Woods plays in a tournament, viewership goes up by millions. That’s more eyes on everybody. And more money for everybody.
Tiger's take: "The changes are going to help anyone who hits the ball long and high. Still doing that, last time I checked."
What the gallery thought: "Why change history? Let history play out. When people jump higher, like LeBron James, they don't say, 'We need to LeBron James the basketball court.' They leave it the same. Fans want to see dunks, 3-pointers. They don't want to see us make bogeys all the time." — Bubba Watson, pro golfer
Bottom line: After Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997 by 12 strokes — his first victory in a major — he was forced to answer question on how easy it was for him to win at Augusta National. Runner-up Tom Kite didn’t help by saying he was proud of finishing second because he "beat all the other mortals."
Courses responded in kind to golf’s newest superstar. They moved tees back. They put fairways in funky positions. They made the courses longer.
And after Woods said Augusta "resembled a driving range" in 1998, the fabled course added its first patch of rough in 1999.
The Clutch Gene
Tiger's take: "I'm aware if I'm playing at my best I'm tough to beat. And I enjoy that."
What the gallery thought: "Anything can happen, especially when he’s hitting it." — Stephen Ames, PGA golfer
Bottom line: Any rundown of the most clutch shots in golf history will include Tiger Woods. Multiple times. Just look at the greatest putts he’s sank, and you get the idea.
His putt on No. 18 at the 2000 PGA Championship to force a playoff with Bob May.
His 60-foot, downhill, triple-breaker putt on No. 17 at the 2001 Players Championship.
And perhaps his greatest shot of all — the 15-foot putt for birdie on the 72nd hole at the 2008 U.S. Open to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate that Woods won.
He Overcame Stuttering and Shared His Story
Tiger’s take: "I know what it's like to be different and to sometimes not fit in. I also stuttered as a child and I would talk to my dog, and he would sit there and listen until he fell asleep. I also took a class for two years to help me, and I finally learned to stop."
What the gallery thought: "That Tiger responded so quickly was the act of not only someone who knew taunting when he was a child — both because of his stutter and his race — but it was also the act of a father of two who understands how we need to protect our children." — Ron Sirak, Golfdigest.com
Bottom line: Tiger Woods overcame a debilitating stutter as a child, and when five-time LPGA Tour winner Sophie Gustafson disclosed that her friend’s son was being bullied for stuttering in 2015, Woods didn’t hesitate to act.
He penned a heartfelt letter to the boy about his own problem with childhood stuttering and how he was able to overcome it — something he’d previously discussed on a "60 Minutes" segment in 2009.
Woods is a hero to anyone who has ever had to deal with stuttering, an estimated 3 million people in the U.S. and 70 million people worldwide.
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He Plays through Pain
Tiger's take: "There were some days where you’d help me, and I couldn’t stand up. I’d have to just fall to the floor or just stay in bed."
What the gallery thought: "He's a rare world-class athlete that has grit and determination and a pain threshold that just — it's unlike any athlete that I've seen or written about." — Jeff Benedict, co-author, "Tiger Woods"
Bottom line: One of the qualities we value the most in athletes is their ability to play through pain. How far will they push themselves? Tiger Woods' ability to play through pain is legendary, rivaled by few in sports history.
He most notably won the 2008 U.S. Open with a broken leg and torn ACL. Then, he spent the next nine years fighting through debilitating back and leg pain that required multiple surgeries, finally fixing the problem with spinal fusion surgery in 2017.
That was followed by his first PGA Tour win in five years at the 2018 Tour Championship.
All Hail the 2008 U.S. Open
Tiger's take: "All I can say is the atmosphere kept me going. I could never quit in front of these people — it was never going to happen. It was a great battle all day ... probably the greatest tournament I've ever had."
What the gallery thought: "I always believe in Tiger and never think that anything is out of reach when he puts his mind to something. I knew that he was determined to win the U.S. Open. I didn't really see how it was logically possible that he would have a chance, but I kept thinking to myself that Tiger said he was going to win, so he must believe somehow he can pull it off." — Hank Haney, Tiger Woods' swing coach
Bottom line: Headed into the 2008 U.S. Open, it was obvious Tiger Woods had some sort of left leg injury he wasn’t fully disclosing. What we remember now is Woods, limping down the course using his club as a cane, essentially.
We remember him forcing an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate on the 72nd hole with a putt for eagle. We remember him hoisting the U.S. Open trophy after playing another 19 holes the next day.
The injuries were more severe than we could’ve realized. He was playing on a broken leg and with a torn ACL.
He’s Not Perfect: Part I
Tiger's take: "I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did was unacceptable. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply. I was wrong."
What the gallery thought: "Most of the players were going, 'How did we miss this?' Nobody saw it coming. Like the public, we were enthralled by the whole, 'How did he get away with it?' " — Padraig Harrington
Bottom line: Thanksgiving 2009 proved to be the beginning of one of the more epic falls from grace in sports history as a disoriented, dazed Tiger Woods crashed his Escalade outside of his Florida mansion in a bizarre scene.
The ensuing months unraveled Woods' squeaky-clean image, with a string of mistresses coming out of the woodwork, and the crash reportedly a result of his then-wife, former Swedish model Elin Nordegren, finding evidence of the affairs on his phone.
It was also Nordegren, that night, who bashed out two windows of the Escalade with a golf club.
He’s Not Perfect: Part II
Tiger's take: "I understand the severity of what I did, and I take full responsibility for my actions. … I will do everything in my power to ensure this never happens again."
What the gallery thought: "What you are witnessing today before your very eyes is not just an individual who has fallen from grace. It’s an individual that finds it very difficult to look himself in the mirror. … He’s a lost soul." —Stephen A. Smith
Bottom line: By the time a dazed and incoherent Woods was arrested on suspicion of DUI in Jupiter, Florida, on Memorial Day weekend in 2017, he was almost a decade removed from his last major victory in the 2008 U.S. Open.
The arrest, in which five different substances were found in his system, represented rock bottom for one of the world’s biggest sports stars — the end of a stunning fall that came with Woods' haggard-looking mug shot going out to the masses.
He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and enter a diversion program.
He Owns His Mistakes
Tiger’s take: "I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame … I didn't have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish. I don't get to play by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me."
What the gallery thought: "It’s probably been a lot tougher on him than what people see, a lot harder than we all know. To have to own up to mistakes and basically be stripped down … it’s been hard for him." — Stewart Cink, PGA golfer
Bottom line: It’s easy to judge Tiger Woods because he’s lived his entire life — almost literally — in the public eye. We feel like we know him personally because of this, and we feel invested in his life because of this.
So, when he makes mistakes publicly, the reaction is much more visceral and pronounced. The headlines are bigger. And each time, he’s managed to bounce back, thanks in no small part for his willingness to face the cameras, apologize, and own up to what he did wrong.
Which cannot be easy.
He Has a Sense of Humor
Tiger's take: "At least I was the No. 1 pick back then, fo' shizzle."
What the gallery thought: "There’s a side to Tiger Woods that nobody gets to see. He likes to make fun of himself. I think people would be surprised by his sense of humor, actually." — Darren Clarke, pro golfer
Bottom line: Tiger Woods has always been in the crosshairs of comedians and late-night talk show hosts — early in his career for how robotic he seemed, on and off the golf course, then later for his personal failings.
What people have failed to notice over the years is that Woods can make fun of himself as well. Like when he finally responded in 2011 to a question about the famous "Racial Draft" sketch from "The Chappelle Show" in the early 2000s (see quote above).
Or when a fan wearing a T-shirt with Woods’ mug shot on it at the 2019 Arnold Palmer got a laugh out of him.
We Love a Comeback
Tiger's take: "Last year, I was lucky to be playing again. At the previous champions dinner, I was really struggling. To now be the champion. Unreal for me to experience this. I couldn't be more happy and excited. I'm at a loss for words."
What the gallery thought: "To me, it’s unbelievable. Mentally, you always think you can. But you can’t answer to what your body has to deal with ... to me, it was the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen." — Michael Jordan
Bottom line: When Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters — his first Masters win since 2005 and his first major win since 2008 — it completed arguably the greatest comeback in sports history.
Take into account that when Woods first ran into trouble after his extramarital affairs scandal in 2009 and his subsequent divorce in 2010, he was ranked No. 1 in the world golf rankings.
By December 2017, following a DUI arrest, surgeries and an extended time away from golf, he was ranked No. 1,199.
He Pulls On Our Heartstrings
Tiger's take: "I think that — I think — well, I hope, I hope they are proud of me. I hope they are proud of their dad. I was very fortunate to be given another chance to do something that I love. But more importantly, I’ve been able to participate in my kids’ lives in a way that I couldn’t for a number of years."
What the gallery thought: "You’re a stoic golf fan, so you didn’t get choked up when Tiger Woods threw his fists in the air after claiming his monumental fifth Masters title on Sunday at Augusta National. That’s fine. Understood. But there’s no way you didn’t start begin to have your lip quiver when Woods walked off the 18th green and greeted his family." — Ryan Herrington, Golfdigest.com
Bottom line: One of golf"s most iconic images came after Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997, and he stepped off the course and embraced his father, Earl Woods, who taught him how to play the game.
When Woods won the Masters in 2019, Tiger stepped off the course and embraced his son, Charlie, and his daughter, Sam. The moment had almost everyone watching reaching for a box of tissues … or wondering how it all of a sudden got so dusty in their living rooms.
These were two genuine, heartfelt moments that gave us a glimpse into what really matters the most for Woods.
He’s a Celebrity Among Celebrities
Tiger's take: "I felt all alone. I needed some help dealing with the fame when I was young. So I sought out some of my friends like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan to help me understand how to deal with things."
What the gallery thought : "Docking in a luxury marina is about the only place to catch a random glimpse of Tiger, who moves through the world in a cocoon of his own creation." — Wright Thompson, ESPN
Bottom line: Tiger Woods is not just among the most recognizable athletes in the world. He is one of the most recognizable celebrities. There is nowhere Woods can go without being recognized — what fellow golfer and friend Rory McIlroy once called "a nightmare."
Woods came to terms with this level of fame early in his career thanks to his friendship with star athletes like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Derek Jeter.
Never was Woods' celebrity on better display than after winning the 2019 Masters. Subsequent Twitter shoutouts came from former U.S. President Barack Obama, the Jonas brothers and even actor Hugh Jackman.
He Crosses the Aisle
Tiger's take: "I've had a bit of an opportunity to play with a couple presidents in a few weeks and enjoyed both days."
What the gallery thought : "This evening, we are in the presence of a true legend, an extraordinary athlete who has transformed golf and achieved new levels of dominance." — President Donald Trump
"To come back and win the Masters after all the highs and lows is a testament to excellence, grit, and determination." — Former U.S. President Barack Obama
Bottom line: Few celebrities can cross the aisle, politically, without experiencing massive public backlash from the other side. Whether they are an athlete, actor, musician or otherwise.
Tiger Woods seems to be the one celebrity who is impervious to this, and phe roved as much when he played rounds with former U.S. President Barack Obama and current U.S. President Donald Trump in consecutive weeks, then received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump in May 2019 after winning the Masters.
One president who Woods hasn’t gotten along with? Bill Clinton. The two have a long-standing beef dating back to the 1990s.
He Gives Back
Tiger's take: "My dad has always taught me these words: care and share. That's why we put on clinics. The only thing I can do is try to give back. If it works, it works."
What the gallery thought: "No matter where we head next on our journey, we have to continue to be great. … Our struggles in this world are similar, and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward — changing ourselves and the world around us — will apply equally to all." — Raia Lockerman, TGR Foundation/Tigers Woods Learning Center (TWLC) graduate
Bottom line: Perhaps the only reason we don’t know more about Tiger Woods' philanthropy over the years is because he rarely mentions the good work he does for others. But his ability to give back is immense, and long-term.
He founded the Tiger Woods Foundation (now the TGR Foundation) in 1996 to teach golf to underprivileged children. In 2006, he opened the $50 million Tiger Woods Learning Center (TWLC) in Anaheim, California.
Four more TWLC campuses have opened around the country in the time since, and it serves thousands of students each year.
He Transcends Sports
Tiger's take: "I’ve battled. I’ve tried to hang in there, and I’ve tried to come back and play the great game of golf again."
What the gallery thought: "Sports fans who claim to only watch one or two of the big three — football, basketball and baseball — held watch parties with friends to see if Woods could show glimpses of his former greatness. They found it hard to put into words why they were so excited to watch the only round of golf they had tuned in for in at least a decade." — Chris Clark, The Times and Democrat sports editor
"Because, remember when everybody was talking (expletive) on Tiger Woods, like ‘Oh blah blah, blah blah this, blah blah that,' and then he (expletive) came and won that green jacket? That’s what I’m going to name my album." — Cardi B, music star
Bottom line: There are few athletes, ever, that bring everyone together in some way, shape or form because of their accomplishments in the field of play. Tiger Woods has been one of those athletes his entire career.
For some reason, the fascination with his backstory, his family and his personal life seem to be continually trumped only by his ability to play the game of golf.
This can be tied to what we value most as a culture — a comeback. Woods seems to continually battle back, no matter what the odds.
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