Tiger Woods, of course, started the year without a victory in his first five starts and golf broke out in a cold sweat. Then he managed only one top-10 finish over his final nine PGA Tour events, the first such stretch in his 51⁄2-year professional career.
But in between Woods did enough to produce one of the best years in golf history.
In seven tournaments worldwide from early March to early June, he won five times and never finished worse than third. After consecutive victories at Bay Hill and Players, Woods completed golf’s best feat yet by winning the Masters. That gave him unprecedented ownership of all four major championship titles at the same time. The so-called Tiger Slam had begun with triumphs in the U.S. Open and British Open and the PGA Championship in 2000.
“Remember, I had a chance to do what no one has ever done before,” Woods said after the official Tour season ended, “and I was able to pull it off.”
At 25, he pulled off so much more.
For the fourth time in five years, he led the PGA Tour in victories (five) and won the PGA Player of the Year Award and Tour money title ($5.69 million). He secured his third consecutive Vardon Trophy for low-stroke average. He not only used his length to lead in par-5 birdie percentage for the fifth consecutive year, he was best in scrambling, saving par 69.8 percent of the time he missed greens in regulation. He also paced the Tour in most strokes under par (182), five better than Vijay Singh and seven more than Phil Mickelson.
“It was a very successful year,” Woods said. “Not as good as last year, but it was pretty good. I’m proud of it.”
Nothing, of course, was as bright as 2000, when he won 12 times around the world, including nine PGA Tour titles and those three majors. When you set more than 30 Tour records, it is, in his words, “hard to duplicate.”
Woods has 22 Tour victories over the last three years and 29 total, including six majors. Perhaps a victim of his own success, Woods won five times on Tour in 2001 and yet was perceived by some as having something of a subpar season. However, over the last 21 years, only one other player, Nick Price in 1994, has bagged five in a season.
“If you compared what (Woods) did this year to all-time golf, it’s way up there,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said.
If there was a downside to his season, it was that he did not contend in the year’s final three majors, the trio he captured in 2000. But perhaps no one else knows the pressure and relief he felt after winning his fourth consecutive at the Masters.
“I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to consistently put yourself there,” he said after tying for 12th at the U.S. Open. “There’s a lot of stress. It wears on you.”
All considered, it could be argued that the pack closed the gap on Woods in 2001. Both British Open champion David Duval and Mickelson were more consistent than Woods in the majors, though so-close Mickelson again didn’t win one. From his wonderful 2000, Woods slipped in driving accuracy (54th to 145th), greens in regulation (75.2 to 71.9 percent) and putting (second to 102nd). Woods dropped from 16 and 17 top-10 finishes in 1999-00 to nine this year. And statistics and results show that many players who switched to the year-old Titleist Pro V1 ball made major improvements.
“I think that intimidation factor is gone a little bit,” said rising star Chris DiMarco. “I think people know that he can be beat and know that he is human . . . and that if you’re playing better that week, you can beat him.”
Though Mickelson won three fewer times than Woods in 2001, the lefthander closed the points gap on the game’s No. 1 player in the Official World Ranking and the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index. He led the Tour statistically in all-around ranking, birdie average and total eagles. Moreover, although ill-timed misses of short putts have cost Mickelson in big tournaments, he did improve his putting, finishing second in putting average (1.717 per GIR).
“My putting was really, really solid,” Mickelson said. “From everything you read in the print media, you’d swear I was just raking it around. But that was an area of my game where I really got better.”
He also got rest. Mickelson, moving from Scottsdale to the San Diego area in December, hasn’t played a Tour event since the WGC-NEC Invitational in August and doesn’t plan to return until the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in mid-January. That means he’s skipping the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii, among others, to spend time with his family in their new home around the holidays.
Though Mickelson is proud he has moved closer to No. 1 in the rankings, the man who beat him at the PGA Championship, David Toms, said Woods remains in a league by himself.
“I still don’t think we’re playing at his level of golf, even the top players,” the three-time 2001 winner said. “Phil Mickelson and David Duval, they’re not as good as Tiger, and I’m not as good as Tiger. He’s gifted. If he played a full schedule, it would be unbelievable what he could do.
“I don’t think I’m a challenge to (Woods). I’m just playing closer to my potential. I don’t think my potential is at (Woods’) level.”
In other 2001 Tour developments:
The Ryder Cup Matches were postponed until 2002 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Scoring records were set or equaled in 2001 for nine holes (Billy Mayfair’s 27 at the Buick Open), 36 holes (Mark Calcavecchia’s 125), consecutive rounds (Calcavecchia’s 124), 54 holes (Calcavecchia’s 189), 72 holes (Calcavecchia’s 256) – all at the Phoenix Open – and 90 holes (Joe Durant’s 324, Bob Hope Chrysler Classic). Calcavecchia also set a record in Phoenix for most birdies in a 72-hole event (32). Mayfair set a record for best birdie-eagle streak by making seven birdies and an eagle over eight holes.
Tour players averaged a record 279.4 yards off the tee. That’s 18 yards more than the 1991 average of 261.4 and 19.7 yards more than the 1981 average of 259.7.
A record 56 players won at least $1 million in 2001, topping the previous high of 45 last year.
Vijay Singh led with 14 top-10 finishes. Jeff Sluman led with 55 rounds in the 60s.
For the first time since 1976, four different rookies won – Garrett Willis, José Coceres, Retief Goosen and David Gossett. Six other players won their first Tour titles.
Finishing among the top 125 earners were players from 16 countries: United States, Fiji, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Argentina, Japan, Zimbabwe, Korea, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, New Zealand and Paraguay.
John Daly won his 10th driving-distance title with a record 306.7-yard average, topping his own 305.6 of 1999. Daly tied the record of most wins in a statistical category. Calvin Peete led in driving accuracy 10 times.
Woods’ 69.8 percent up-and-down percentage was best on Tour since Greg Norman’s 72.8 percent in 1993. Five of the top 10 scramblers were among the top 10 earners: Woods, Davis Love III, Scott Hoch, Bob Estes and Scott Verplank.
David Frost won his second putting title (also in 1993) and Tom Lehman his second GIR crown (1997).
Southern Hills (73.271 average) was the hardest course and the TPC at Sawgrass’ 18th (4.455) the most difficult hole.
Pete Jordan, Neal Lancaster and Esteban Toledo made the most starts (36) and Fred Funk played the most rounds (117).
Only $94 separated No. 125 in earnings (Woody Austin) from 126th (Bradley Hughes). That’s the closest margin in the competition for the final exempt spot since Pat McGowan edged John Inman by $76 in 1989.