Playoff win at Torrey Pines ranks high, but doesn't top '97 Masters

SAN DIEGO -- Last September, I sat facing Tiger Woods, looked him in the eye and asked, "What's the greatest win of your career?"

Without blinking, without thinking, without hesitation, he responded, "1997 Masters."

No other explanation was necessary. In case you don't recall that victory, welcome back to the planet Earth. The short story: Competing in his first major championship as a professional, the 21-year-old phenom of mixed ethnic background delicately carved his way around lily-white Augusta National and into the global consciousness.

It was at once a dominant, defining moment in the game, while at the same time helped to bring golf to the masses and boosted its popularity among various races and cultures.

If Woods someday finished his career without ever one-upping that moment, he could be excused for such a shortcoming; it's not a moment that should so easily be outdone.

On Monday, however, after flummoxing Rocco Mediate through 19 extra holes of play at Torrey Pines to win the championship despite an excruciating knee injury that caused him to wince and double over in pain on multiple occasions throughout the week, Woods suggested that the 2008 U.S. Open may have been the best of his 14 career major titles so far.

Of course "best" is a vague term, one that needs description, definition and explanation. Using historical importance, dominance, dramatics and entertainment value as a guideline, let's break down each of Woods' major victories in order, from No. 1 to 14.

1. 1997 Masters
Woods' initial major championship remains the standard-bearer against which all his subsequent accomplishments should be measured. The win didn't just change the game; it changed the world. His jaunt through Augusta National broke down barriers, dispelling the notion that golf was a homogenous game built only for those of a specific bloodline. One day after Woods won that tournament, masses of people were inspired to try the game on courses and driving ranges around the world. That weekend golf became cool. It became popular. It became young and hip and brash -- all because of a young man named Tiger Woods, who usurped the world's best players by a record 12 strokes on the game's grandest stage.

Tiger's Take: "I never thought I would have a lead like I did. You envision dueling it out with Nicklaus or Watson or Faldo, but never to do it in the fashion I did."

2. 2008 U.S. Open
On its own, the torment at Torrey Pines may have been Tiger's most nail-biting, odds-defying victory to date. The six-hole stretch on Saturday that featured two lengthy eagle putts and a chip-in birdie that propelled him into the lead was brilliant; the make-or-break final-hole birdie putt on Sunday was triumphant; the 18-hole standstill with Mediate and ensuing sudden death victory on Monday were exhilarating. But it all holds extra cachet because of how badly injured Woods really was during the tournament -- just two days later he announced his season was over due to a torn ACL in his left knee that needs surgery and a double stress fracture in his tibia -- and how little preparation he was able to do beforehand.

Tiger's Take: "I think this is the best, just because of all of the things I had to deal with. … It's a close one to the first one I won. But with all the things considered this week, yeah."

3. 2000 U.S. Open
Two words: Utter dominance. There has never been a major so soundly ruled over than this affair at Pebble Beach. Officially, Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez tied for second place at 3 over par. Tiger? He was 12 under. Most players win the U.S. Open by 15 and then wake up when the alarm goes off. Woods' dream was reality -- and doesn't even crack the top two on his list anymore.

Tiger's Take: "I got the trophy. Now I get to go home. But you don't really understand exactly what you've done, until time passes. And I'll appreciate this win a lot more in the future than I do right now, because I'm too close to the moment. And I had a wonderful week, a great week, actually, but I can't really tell you historically what it really means. I've been told that I've set a few records, but I don't really know what they are. I haven't had time. … The only thing I know is I got the trophy sitting right next to me."

4. 2000 British Open
Asked on Monday to name his third greatest major feat (after this week's Open and the '97 Masters), Woods chose this one -- and for good reason. His compelling domination at St. Andrews led to an 8-stroke victory, but more importantly sealed his place among the all-time legends of the game, as Tiger joined Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player as the only players to claim the career Grand Slam.

Tiger's Take: "It's the ultimate," Woods said. "This is the home of golf. This is where you always want to win. To have a chance to complete the slam at St. Andrews is pretty special. I was able to bring it home."

5. 2001 Masters
No player in the modern era has ever accomplished the Grand Slam, winning all four professional majors in the same year. But after beating David Duval by two strokes for his second Masters win, Woods staked a claim to what became known as the Tiger Slam, as he held all four major trophies on his mantel at the very same time.

Tiger's Take: "When I won in '97, I had not been a pro a full year yet. I guess I was a little young, a little naive, and didn't understand what I accomplished, for at least a year or two after that event. This year, I understand. I've been around the block. I've witnessed a lot of things since that year. You know, I have better appreciation for winning a major championship, and to win it -- to win four of them in succession -- it's just, it's hard to believe, really, because there's so many things that go into winning a major championship."

6. 2006 British Open
Solemn and steely-eyed on the course, Woods never displayed the internal emotion that he was carrying throughout the four rounds … until his final putt dropped. Less than three months after his father, Earl, passed away, Tiger broke down in a rare display of public effusion, clutching caddie Steve Williams in a tight embrace while tears welled up in his eyes.

Tiger's Take: "At that moment, it just came pouring out and of all the things that my father has meant to me and the game of golf, and I just wish he could have seen it one more time. I was pretty bummed out after not winning the Masters, because I knew that was the last major he was ever going to see. So that one hurt a little bit. And finally to get this one, it's just unfortunate that he wasn't here to see it."

7. 2000 PGA Championship
Proving that sometimes the greatest challenges can come from the unlikeliest of sources, little-known Bob May matched Woods shot for shot at Valhalla. In a major championship version of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, Tiger showed that he was better than the absolute best May had to offer. The result was entertainment for the ages.

Tiger's Take: "The fireworks started on the back nine. This is probably one of the greatest duels I've ever had in my life. Hats off to Bob. He played his heart out.''

8. 2005 Masters
You'll remember The Chip. You know, the one on 16 that landed some 30 feet above the hole only to funnel toward the cup and hang inexplicably on the lip before swooshing its way into the hole. The bogey-bogey finish that followed? The playoff against Chris DiMarco? They all take a backseat to one of the most memorable shots of Tiger's career, which led to his first victory in his last 10 major appearances, the culmination of massive swing changes in previous years.

Tiger's Take: "More than anything, it's validation of all the hard work I've put into it. Hank [Haney] and I have put some serious hours into this and, you know, I read some of the articles over [the] past year of him getting ripped, I'm getting ripped for all the changes I'm making, and to play as beautifully as I did this entire week is pretty cool."

9. 1999 PGA Championship
With only one major to Woods' credit -- and none in his previous 10 attempts -- those who had anointed Woods as the Next Big Thing were already looking for the next Next Big Thing. They thought they had found it in Sergio Garcia, an excitable 19-year-old Spaniard who had the look and athleticism to be Tiger's longtime rival. Woods got the best of his young peer that week -- and the chalk outline of Garcia's major career may still rest somewhere on the final holes at Medinah.

Tiger's Take: "To come out of it on top took everything out of me. I just tried to hold him off and did the best I could."

10. 2002 U.S. Open
A return to a municipal facility brought a sense of energy back to the Open and no player was better suited to win one for the blue-collar crowd than Woods. To this day, it remains the lone major in which he and Phil Mickelson finished as the top two competitors, though in reality Tiger's 3-stroke win wasn't met with much of a challenge down the stretch.

Tiger's Take: "It's so hard to describe how good it feels to win a major championship, because it takes so much out of you, and it's so difficult to do because you have to really play well. And you've got to be at the top of your game in order to win a major championship. You can't go out and slop it around and win. And it's just really neat to look at the guys on the list that I'm a part of now. And hopefully my career will keep being positive."

11. 2002 Masters
By lengthening their course nearly 300 yards, Augusta National officials believed they were "Tiger-proofing" the Masters and setting a more level playing field. Think again. Woods surgically dismantled the larger ballpark, winning by 3 strokes to earn his second-straight green jacket and third overall -- trailing only Nicklaus and Palmer on the all-time list.

Tiger's Take: "I keep saying it -- you've got to have some good breaks. I played well this week, made some good putts when I really needed them, but I had some good breaks as well. I was able to somehow finagle a way to get up and down and save a lot of pars this week."

12. 2007 PGA Championship
Frankly, we're still trying to figure out how Woods doesn't own the all-time major championship single-round scoring record by his lonesome, rather than sharing it with some two dozen others. He shot 63 in the second round at Southern Hills, but was left befuddled when his final birdie attempt of the day failed to find the bottom of the cup, leading him to call it a round of "62½." That score did give him the 36-hole lead, though, one which he would never relinquish en route to claiming his first major win since his daughter, Sam, was born.

Tiger's Take: "It's a feeling I've never had before, having Sam there and having Elin there. It feels a lot more special when you have your family there. … So it's evolved, and this one feels so much more special than the other majors. … I was so excited and just want to give Elin and Sam a kiss and get back to signing my scorecard."

13. 2005 British Open
What does it say about a man who can claim a Claret Jug for the second time in as many attempts at the vaunted home of golf, and still have it rank so far down on this list? On a week remembered more for his idol Jack Nicklaus' retiring from major competition, Woods conquered St. Andrews to the tune of a 5-stroke victory -- his largest winning margin at a major in five years.

Tiger's Take: "It's pretty cool. I've kind of gone one past halfway. Jack's got 18, now I have 10. Man, I tell you what, I honestly -- when I first started playing the tour -- I didn't think I'd have this many majors before the age of 30. There's no way. No one ever has. Usually the golden years are in your 30s for a golfer. Hopefully, that will be the case."

14. 2006 PGA Championship
There's no such thing as a "bad" major title and picking one would be like naming a least-favorite child. But Woods' victory at Medinah is certainly the least memorable of the 14 wins. He took sole possession of the lead on the opening hole of the final round and never relinquished it, earning a 5-stroke victory without ever seriously being challenged. If you dozed off and don't remember, don't feel too guilty.

Tiger's Take: "It was a special day out there. I just had one of those magical days on the greens today. I just felt like if I got the ball anywhere on the green, I could make it. It's not too often you get days like that, and I happened to have it on the final round of a major championship. So it was a really neat feeling to have."

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.