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Tiger Finds Way To Exclusive Club

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, August 21, 2006

MEDINAH, ILL. There's no sense in trying to tell the story of Tiger Woods in the context of the PGA Championship because the final major tournament of the year isn't grand enough to provide the context. There's no sense in measuring Tiger against Phil and Sergio and the others because they can't measure up right now and chances are they never will. Sunday's victory at the PGA, Tiger's 12th career major, pushed him past the legendary Walter Hagen and leaves him No. 2, only six shy of Jack Nicklaus's all-time, once thought to be unapproachable mark of 18.

Professional golf isn't big enough to hold the conversation that must be had about Tiger Woods now because he's dominating a sport that has never been dominated, not by the great Bobby Jones, not by Arnold Palmer and not even by Nicklaus. Before the age of 35, presuming relatively good health, Tiger will have blown past Nicklaus statistically to become officially "the greatest golfer of all time." Until then, it's not only fair that we let our imaginations wander, it's mandatory. The great thrill of sports, after the final bows have been taken and the last cheers have been muted, is comparing the kings of kings, in their sports and beyond.

Watching Tiger now is as much theater as competition, which is what happens when sport is raised to art, when it commands not only respect but admiration. At the turn of the 20th century, Jack Johnson raised sport to that level. And then Red Grange and Jack Dempsey. And then, of course, Babe Ruth raised it to a level that, 80 years later, defines great athletic performance in America.

After Ruth there was Bobby Jones, then a long run by Joe Louis, then Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Jackie Robinson's impact was cultural even more than athletic. And it led us into an era of television, where entertainment became as valuable as winning. And delivered the exceptionally rare hybrid who could master both, the way Muhammad Ali did, and most of us fell in love. Of course, Ali has to be considered the father of modern greatness, the supreme athlete in the television age, redefining what winning meant to kids who grew up watching him, kids such as Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis, Joe Montana and John Elway, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and, of course, Michael Jordan.

So, we've come now to Tiger Woods, who is all these things we've come over the decades to value, including some ingredients we've never seen in the pot until now. Tiger striding up the 18th fairway in that red shirt on Sunday might as well be Ali's red tassels popping in the ring or Jordan's tongue wagging in the fourth quarter. He swings with the prodigious physicality of Ruth, while maintaining the precision of Joe Montana. He controls a golf ball the way Pete Maravich did a basketball, thinks his way around a golf course with the depth of intelligence that Ted Williams thought about hitting, and goes about the mission of winning with the same ferocious will that characterized Jordan.

Whatever Tiger Woods needs to do on a given weekend, fine -- done. By any means necessary, win.

In Liverpool at the British Open a month ago, Tiger was called upon to hit off parched grass that had the consistency of concrete.

He did so by constructing an irons-only game plan that none of his peers had the skill or imagination to even attempt. Here in Chicago, with Mother Nature having evened the playing field by softening Medinah, Tiger was called upon to take divots the size of toupees in the fairways while firing at pins. And he did that better than anybody else in the field.

The mark of any great player in any sport in any era is finishing what he started. And Tiger, after his 68 in the final round, is now 12 for 12 when leading or sharing the lead entering Sunday. Nobody in golf has done that. Lance Armstrong was seven for seven in his final Tours de France. Michael Jordan sandwiched six straight championship seasons around two that carry an asterisk because of retirement.

And the worst news imaginable for his peers is that Tiger won't be satisfied. Earl Woods didn't raise him to be satisfied. And Tiger, far from being bored, still has time to get better. He's 30. And he likes beating people -- especially a sniveling little punk like Sergio Garcia, who, despite his prodigious talents, is at the opposite end of the spectrum as it concerns fortitude. Garcia, whining little brat that he is, had nerve enough to walk off the course Sunday and talk about how Tiger got all the breaks once again.

"The bad shots he hit all week long, he got away with them," Garcia said. With that, the kid reminded us of exactly why he hasn't won a major championship, exactly why he melts down every time he's paired with Tiger, and more important, why we should never get bored with greatness.

The opposite of greatness is Sergio Garcia.

But even the worthy competitors who have the stomach for a challenge are in trouble because Tiger said after winning Sunday that he has a "better understanding of how to get more out of my round" than he did after winning here in 1999. He said he handles his emotions better, is better mechanically, better mentally. "I've made a bunch of strides" since winning at Medinah seven years ago, he said.

That first PGA victory was the beginning of the stretch that carried Tiger to seven majors in 11 tries, which makes us wonder whether he feels, once again, he is on the cusp of something special. Tiger was asked whether he's playing as well now as he was in 1999-2001 and he said, somewhat surprisingly: "Yes. Yes. I've learned since then, yeah. I feel like things are pretty darn good right now."

If you're one of the people trying to break through and challenge to be the best in the world, Tiger Woods saying things are pretty darn good right now isn't what you want to hear. You don't want to see him hitting 5-woods while you're swinging a driver. You don't want to see him draining 40-foot putts twice on the front nine. You don't want to see him splashing bunker shots within three feet for up-and-down. Really, you don't want to see him, period, not if you're Luke Donald or Mike Weir and you're directly in his sights.

Then again, Tiger's not really playing with Donald and Weir as much as he is with Wayne Gretzky and Jim Brown, with Ruth and Jordan. It's a small, private club and doesn't take long to call the roll.

"It's not something I could get next year," Tiger said of catching Nicklaus. "It took Jack over 20 years to get his. It's going to take a career. . . . These events are the most fun events to play in, the major championships. I just thoroughly enjoy coming down the stretch on the back nine with a chance to win it. That's why I practice as hard as I do and what I live for."

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