Twenty years ago, golf was a niche sport that featured modest purses and catered to a medium-sized fan base. The fans of that time would hardly recognize all of the pomp, circumstance and money that surrounds the men’s game today. Many of the reasons for pro golf’s big bump in prosperity in the new millennium can be traced back to one person: Tiger Woods. This is a man who truly became something larger than his own sport and had fans from all over the world hanging over his every shot.
From the start, Woods was a ratings smash. After winning twice at the tail-end of 1996, he broke through for his first major title at the 1997 Masters; 44 million Americans tuned in, the most ever for a golf telecast. He delivered similarly impressive figures for the next decade or so, and even regular tournaments were significantly buoyed by Woods’ presence. PGA Tour purses began to get bigger and bigger, a reflection of golf’s new popularity. In 1996, Tom Lehman led the PGA Tour in money with $1,780,159. Russell Knox beat that by a thousand dollars this year–and he’s at No. 46 on the money list.
Much of the reason for Woods’ allure has centered around his terrific talent and his relentlessness. For more than ten years, he lorded over the game as no one had before, not even Jack Nicklaus. He spent 679 weeks, or just over 13 years, as the world No. 1.
Woods was so profoundly good for so long that he lends his name to an entire era of golf–it’s the Tiger Woods era. In this list, I’m going to rank the best players of that era from No. 50 through No. 1. Before we get cracking though, let’s go over a few rules that I’ll adhere to throughout.
Wins will be my primary measure of greatness. Importantly, major wins will count for more than anything else. Victories at WGCs, the Players or in the FedEx Cup playoffs also count for more. And keep in mind that I generally give more weight to PGA Tour wins than to ones on the European Tour–stronger fields. Close calls at the majors, mastery of specific skills and team match play success may also be factored into the rankings.
Certainly, there have been many players that do not fit neatly into the Tiger Woods era. At first, I was going to make eligible anyone who won a PGA Tour event in 1997 or later, but that would mean including guys like Tom Watson–not really what I was going for. Instead, I decided that in order to be considered a product of the Tiger Woods era, a player had to have notched at least 25 percent of his major tour wins (that is, PGA and European Tour) in 1997 or later. As a result, some older players are included, but most on this list are still active.
I also thought about whether or not we’re still in the Tiger Woods era–after all, the recent success of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day has certainly seemed to usher in a new age in the game. I decided, however, that they’re still a part of it–Woods is still the foremost figure in the game and has been the driving force behind many factors that have led to the game’s current environment.
Without further ado, let’s go 50 deep and take a look at the best of the best from the past 20 years, the Tiger Woods era.