Saturday will mark the five-year anniversary of the round in which Tiger Woods, as we knew him, ceased to exist. It was a Sunday at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, and I had a front-row seat for the beginning of the end.
On that day, little-known Y.E. Yang dueled Tiger on the tournament’s final day. Woods led after 54 holes, and in every other major in which he held that distinction, Tiger had closed the deal. He was in pursuit of his 15th major, which would put him three from tying Jack Nicklaus, and the eventual passing of the major championship torch was close to a formality.
That’s how good Tiger was at the time. That’s how intimidating he was. Until that Sunday.
Woods shot a final-round 75. Yang fired a 70, winning by three strokes. I watched the entire thing unfold as part of my “Tracking Tiger” assignment at the Star Tribune. During Woods’ practice rounds and for all four of his real rounds at Hazeltine, my assignment was simple: follow him everywhere, watch him interact, and write about it.
I had done the same thing in 2002, when Woods — just 26 years old and already having won eight majors — also graced Hazeltine for the PGA Championship. That year, too, Woods finished runner-up to a little-known golfer (Rich Beem), but that had an entirely different feel. Woods made a magnificent Sunday charge, tearing up the final holes to finish the day at 67 and the tournament at 9 under. Beem just managed to hold him off.
He had a blip after that, failing to win a major in 2003 or 2004. But he piled on six more from 2005-08, then was primed to add another before Yang put an end to it.
Three months after that fateful final round at Hazeltine in 2009 — with Woods’ invincibility already having taken a hit when he couldn’t make another golfer wilt under his gaze — the infidelity scandal that would forever change Woods’ personal image broke.
Then his body started to break down: an elbow, a leg, a back … they all troubled him at various moments. He still was good enough to muster six top-10 finishes in majors from 2010-13, but something was missing. He was fading on the weekends. Younger players were taking over. All the golf headlines still featured his name, but they kept feeling emptier and emptier.
Woods defiantly played through a back injury in this year’s PGA Championship, only to miss the cut. He missed the Masters and U.S. Open, then wasn’t even close at the British Open, before this.
He hasn’t won a major in more than six years. It’s a stunning fall, and it all started five years ago. Following him around for miles and miles that week at Hazeltine, few were closer to him than I was, and never would I have predicted this.