In the end, it was arguably the greatest season ever for Tiger Woods. His win on Sunday in the Target World Challenge was his 10th global victory of the year and, if not for a cold putting week at the Masters, this would have surpassed the mythical millennium run of 2000. He did this after re-upping with Nike for something close to $150 million, after signing a $25 million golf course design project in Dubai, after bungee jumping and race car driving and living life in the Tiger lane.
Tuesday morning, he was on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, a rerun of his visit with the talk show queen from earlier this year, talking about free diving, spear fishing (he can holding his breath for four minutes) and his golf cart, which has neon lights under the running boards and his "TW" on the spinners. The occasion was to promote his EA Sports video game, but it showed how incredibly relaxed and natural he is on camera. Wearing jeans with the knees fashionably ripped, Woods concluded his appearance by competing against DeGeneres in a Big Break-type competition. He was 2-for-2 hitting a target on the wall, but couldn't upstage Ellen, who hit the upper right hole (while aiming lower left). Above the audience, you could hear Woods scream, "How good was that?" and "That was totally cool." As they cut to break, Ellen told everyone in the audience they'd be getting a copy of the game.
The win at Sherwood and the scene on a morning TV talk show prove this really is Tiger's world. We just happen to be living in it. And with it we get spoiled. Already, we're spinning this forward to next year, to questions like: Will he play the Mercedes? Will the streak continue? Can this be the year of Tiger Slam II? How many FedEx Cup events will Tiger Woods enter? "I'm going to play every event next year," he said on Sunday, drawing laughter. "I'm not taking any weeks off."
Before we fast forward to 2007, let's go back to May-June, and that nine-week stretch between the Masters and the U.S. Open, when Earl Woods succumbed to cancer and Tiger disappeared from competitive golf. This was the darkest period in Tiger's life, a time when he examined its true meaning. Phil Mickelson was coming off two straight majors, preparing for the U.S. Open, riding momentum and awash in talk of a potential "Mickelslam."
Then Tiger missed the cut at Winged Foot and Phil played his way into the last group on Sunday, tied for the lead with Kenneth Ferrie. From his boat, Woods watched on satellite TV as Mickelson sliced his drive on the 72nd hole of the Open off a hospitality tent, hit his second shot into a tree limb and changed the course of a season.
"It was a very interesting finish, one that none of us who are involved in the game of golf probably ever would have predicted we would have seen happening," Woods said July 5 at the Western Open. Of Mickelson, he said, "It's nothing new to him, nothing new to any of us. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, come back out the next week and play."
Woods was still picking himself up, dusting himself off, after losing his dad. It wasn't until the following day, July 6, that the final piece fell into place toward assembling the outcome of 2006. In a practice session at Cog Hill, after an opening-round 72, Woods and swing instructor Hank Haney worked for three hours, until dark. At the end of that session, Woods had found "it," and was able to hit shots on call: high, low, right-to-left, left-to-right -- his driver was even behaving. The next day he shot 67. He would not finish worse than second in a stroke-play event worldwide the remainder of the year.
"I said [to Hank], you know what, let's forget what happened," Woods recalled on Sunday. "Let's work on what we did at the beginning of the year that won the first two events and let's get everything organized, and we did that in one afternoon, and all of a sudden it turned around, and boom."
Boom, is right: Two straight majors, six straight stroke-play wins and victories in the Grand Slam of Golf and the Target to close out the season with bookend victories. As he reminded us, 2006 started with back-to-back victories at the Buick Invitational and Dubai Desert Classic. There was also his second straight win at Doral, the last victory Earl would enjoy before passing on May 3. Although he has one less major, the 10 wins -- not counting the PGA Grand Slam -- tie his performance of 2000.
So while we compare, Woods moves on. He's not sure about playing the Mercedes and will finalize his 2007 schedule this week. He will defend at the Buick and Dubai tournaments back-to-back and begin preparations for the third leg of his second Tiger Slam. "I think if you compare the two years, I think this year would have to be better because of obviously the things I've been dealing with off the golf course," he said. "In 2000, I didn't have to deal with that."
Early last week, Woods said there was more tranquility in his life than ever before. With the Tiger Woods Foundation doing well, his swing in order, his marriage to Elin, and his 31st birthday approaching on Dec. 30, there is a sense that better days are ahead -- even better than what we saw in 2006 or 2000. Two dates are already circled on his schedule: April 5-8 (Masters) and June 14-17 (U.S. Open).
"Augusta is obviously a long way away but still in the back of all of our minds, and the whole idea is to play well leading up to the tournament and hopefully have your game just peak at the right time that particular week," he said. "Hopefully I'll do the same thing at Oakmont."
Other than Jim Furyk, all the big guns have major question marks going into '07. Mickelson still hasn't picked himself up after Winged Foot. Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen seemingly have peaked. Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia have putting issues. Geoff Ogilvy saw at the Grand Slam and the Target that he's not ready yet to take on Tiger. The gap between Woods and the rest of the competition has never seemed greater. Like Haney forewarned at the British Open, it's to the point that his greatest season is yet to come.
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.