As sports go, it wasn’t close: Tiger Woods was famous for his golf long before he became infamous for his personal life.
For 10 incomparable years, no one ruled a sport like Woods. He won 64 tournaments, including 12 major championships. He hoisted a trophy on every continent where golf is played. And those 56 titles in one decade on the PGA Tour? Consider that only four of golf’s greatest players won more in their entire careers.
Even as a shocking sex scandal changed the way people look at Woods, the records he set could not be ignored.
Woods was selected Wednesday as the Athlete of the Decade by members of The Associated Press in a vote that was more about his performance on the course than the self-described transgressions as a person.
“The only reason I wouldn’t vote for Tiger Woods is because of the events of the last three weeks,” said Mike Strain, sports editor of the Tulsa (Okla.) World. “And I didn’t think that was enough to change my vote. I thought he was a transcendent sports figure.”
He received 56 of the 142 votes cast since last month by editors at U.S. newspapers that are members of the AP. More than half the ballots were returned after the Nov. 27 car accident outside his Florida home that set off sensational tales of infidelity.
Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor who won the Tour de France six times this decade, finished second with 33 votes. He was followed by Roger Federer, who has won more Grand Slam singles titles than any other man, with 25 votes.
Record-setting Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps came in fourth with 13 votes, followed by New England quarterback Tom Brady (6) and world-record sprinter Usain Bolt (4). Five other athletes received one vote apiece.
Woods, who has not been seen since the accident and has issued only statements on his Web site, was not made available to comment about the award.
Seattle Times sports editor Don Shelton discussed the vote with his staff, which he said was torn among Woods, Armstrong and Federer. He voted for Woods in the early stages of the scandal.
“I’m not sure I would change my vote,” Shelton said. “I looked at him as an athlete, I really did. I separated him a little bit. If this had happened three years ago and his performance had dropped off, that’s a different factor.”
Allegations of rampant affairs starting come out just 10 days after Woods won the Australian Masters before record crowds for the 82nd worldwide victory of his career. He received a $3 million appearance fee in Australia, and the government estimated a return of $20 million from the number of fans Woods attracted.
Few other athletes changed their sport, from TV ratings to galleries to prize money.
A new image emerged quickly in the days following his middle-of-the-night accident, when he ran his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree. He became the butt of late-night TV jokes, eventually confessed to infidelity and lost a major sponsorship from Accenture.
“Seems an unlikely time to vote for him, but he had more influence and impact on the complete decade, 2000 to 2009, than any of the other athletes,” said Paul Vigna, sports editor of The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News.
AP members found Woods’ work on the golf course over the last 10 years without much of a blemish. He took an early lead in the balloting, and continued to receive roughly the same percentage of votes throughout the process.
“Despite the tsunami of negative publicity that will likely tarnish his image, there’s no denying that Woods’ on-the-course accomplishments set a new standard of dominance within his sport while making golf more accessible to the masses,” wrote Stu Whitney, sports editor of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader. “The only proof needed are the television ratings when Tiger plays in a golf tournament, compared to those events when others have to carry the load.”
The fall was as spectacular as his rise.
Woods won the career Grand Slam three times over in the decade, the last of his 12 majors at the 2008 U.S. Open despite playing on a mangled left leg. He twice won the British Open at St. Andrews, the home of golf, by a combined 13 shots.
“It seems like everybody has jumped on the ‘slay Tiger’ bandwagon,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “I understand the dynamics around that. But I’d also like people to recognize how great he operated under a microscope for a long period of time.”
Woods won more than one-third of all the tournaments he played this decade, an unprecedented rate in golf. Nine of his victories were by at least eight shots. He was No. 1 in the world ranking for all but 32 weeks in the decade.
He did his best work in the biggest events. Along with his 12 majors this decade – he has 14 overall, four short of the record held by Jack Nicklaus – Woods was runner-up in six other majors. He won 14 times out of 27 appearances in the World Golf Championships.
Woods finished the decade with $81,547,410 in earnings from his PGA Tour events, an average of $482,529 per tournament.
“No athlete dominated a particular sport the way Tiger Woods did this decade,” said Phil Kaplan, deputy sports editor at the Knoxille (Tenn.) News-Sentinel.