Flashback Friday is The Fried Egg’s weekly dive into the fascinating, forgotten details of golf history. For an audio version of this week’s installment, listen to the Shotgun Start podcast.
In 2004, Mike Weir almost became the first Canadian in a half century to win the men’s Canadian Open. He ran into a juggernaut, however: Vijay Singh defeated Weir in a playoff.
Vijay’s 2004 was world-historically great. In the midst of Tiger Woods’s prime, Singh claimed nine victories, 16 top sixes, and 19 top 10s in 32 starts. He missed only one cut and finished outside the top 25 all of four times. He won Player of the Year—the only time that award went to someone other than Tiger between 1999 and 2007—and ascended to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. In fact, the 2004 Bell Canadian Open was the first tournament Singh played as the top-ranked player in the world.
It bears repeating that he did all of this when Tiger was 28 years old and healthy.
What was Tiger up to in 2004? He had one win and 16 top 10s in 21 starts. He was battling through a major-championship drought that lasted from the 2002 U.S. Open to the 2005 Masters. In other words, he was getting his butt kicked by Vijay Singh.
There are plenty of plausible explanations for Tiger’s hiatus from dominance in the early 2000s. The most frequently cited one is the swing reconstruction he underwent with Hank Haney between 2004 and 2005. But there’s another, less commonly discussed possibility.
In 2003, Titleist debuted the ProV1x ball. Many tour players put it in play, including Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and—yes—Vijay Singh. Tiger did not.
In that light, consider these combined 2003-2004 results:
Els: 11 wins, 0 majors, 38 top 10s in 53 starts
Singh: 13 wins, 1 major, 37 top 10s in 60 starts
Tiger: 7 wins, 0 majors, 30 top 10s in 44 starts
Phil: 2 wins, 1 major, 20 top 10s in 45 starts
For a two-year stretch in the dead center of his prime, the GOAT was not the undisputed best player in the world. Ernie Els and Vijay Singh were at least as good, arguably better.
In 2003, speaking to Golf Magazine, Phil Mickelson said of Tiger, “He hates that I can fly it past him now. He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he’s stuck with.”
Phil got crushed for saying this, but he wasn’t wrong. Check out these driving distance rankings pre- and post-ProV1x:
Tiger: 6th, 294 yards
Phil: 25th, 288
Vijay: 26th, 285
Ernie: 84th, 281
Phil: 3rd, 306
Ernie: 5th, 303
Vijay: 6th, 302
Tiger: 11th, 300
The following year, Tiger outranked his three rivals in driving distance, but not by much. Els, Mickelson, and Singh had closed the power gap that Woods had exploited to win six of 12 majors between 2000 and 2002.
Tiger made a key adjustment in 2005, though. He adopted Nike’s new One Platinum ball and Sasquatch driver, and went on an absolute tear. His average driving distance shot up to 316 yards. He had seven wins, five runners-up, and 15 top 10s in 23 starts. He won the Masters and the Open, and finished in the top five in all four majors.
Order had been restored. At the time, a lot of credit went to the slow but necessary work Haney did on Tiger’s swing. But is it just a coincidence that Tiger’s 2003-2004 lull coincided with a time when his rivals were playing a superior ball? If it’s not, we’re left with a number of what-ifs. What if Tiger and Nike Golf had acted earlier? What if the governing bodies had stopped the solid-core revolution when they had a chance? Would the 2019 Masters have been number 19?