Trying to rank the greatest sports achievements is futile. How can one fairly compare Secretariat's 1973 Triple Crown races against Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point night? Even within individual sports, is a perfect game better than a four home run game? How does a hat trick compare with a 50 save performance? With Tiger Woods back on top of the rankings despite not winning a major title since 2008, it is time to look back on his extraordinary accomplishment 16 years ago this week.
After winning the U.S. Amateur for a third straight year Woods turned pro at the age of 20 in September 1996. In eight professional starts before the New Year he won twice and finished in the top 10 five times. He began 1997 with a playoff win over Tom Lehman at the Mercedes Championship. Three months later he convinced any remaining skeptics.
As an amateur Woods made the cut and finished five over par in the 1995 Masters. He shot six over and failed to make the cut in 1996. In his first professional round at Augusta Woods shot 70 and was in forth place behind opening round leader John Huston. With a 66 on Friday Woods took a three stroke lead into the weekend. His 65 on Saturday gave him a 9 stroke advantage over his closest rival. His final round 69 sealed a 12 stroke victory.
At the age of 21 Woods put together the most dominating performance in tournament history. Both his -18 score and 12 stroke margin are the best ever at the Masters. The win by a dozen strokes equaled the total margin of victory of the following six champions combined. Since his easy win no Masters champion has won by a margin of more than three strokes.
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Tiger won at Augusta again in 2001. He finished -16 and beat David Duval by two strokes. His third title came in 2002 when he finished -12, three shots better than Retief Goosen. In 2005 he shot 12 under and birdied the first playoff hole beating Chris Dimarco for his fourth title. Since 2005 he has finished second twice, third once, fourth twice, sixth in 2009 and last year he was a non factor.
The amazing part about perhaps the greatest four days in golf history is the fact Woods did not win another major for two more years. He failed to capture a second green jacket for four more years. It wasn't until 1999 that began his prime, winning 22 tournaments over a three year span. A guy who had never shot even par at Augusta, and had never won a major, dominated not only a star studded field but the most historic venue in American golf.
Whatever Tiger does this week, whether it is win, miss the cut, lose close, falter late, or make a comeback that falls short, it will be a huge story. Many have proclaimed he is back. Others insist he is finished. What nobody suggests is that he, or anybody else, will touch his achievement 16 years ago. It ranks among the greatest triumphs in sports history.