In the next few weeks, we'll see lots of lists of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Was Michael Jordan better than Babe Ruth? Was Muhammad Ali greater than both? Why isn't Jim Thorpe ranked higher?
All these lists will have one feature in common. The discussion will be conducted in the past tense. When you get to the highest rungs of the ladder--the top 10--no active athlete will be mentioned. Even Mark McGwire, the byproduct of a home run besotted era, probably won't get there.
Yet we do have one truly historic American athlete among us who may, at the proper time, be ranked close to the Jordans, Ruths, Alis and Thorpes. Tiger Woods: the first great worldwide athlete of the 21st century.
Even three months ago, it would have been premature to say such things. Now, it would be unfair not to give Tiger's future its due and its weight.
Like Jack Nicklaus before him, Woods is always going to have an asterisk appended to his greatness--"just" a golfer. That can't be helped. Sometimes, golfers don't even break a sweat. Still, once that inescapable proviso is factored in, the sky is now the limit for Woods's reputation.
Last Sunday in Spain, Woods became the first golfer since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win four straight events. He also became the first player in 25 years to win eight events in a year. That, coupled with his PGA Championship in August, changes the entire shape of his career.
Now, Woods is not just the gifted young phenom who lapped the field at one monumental Masters and who may someday do the same amazing deeds as a pro that he did as an amateur. Now, at 23, he's truly doing those deeds.
Tiger is not just 330-yard drives, a fabulous smile, a Stanford education, a ton of prize money and a commercial empire hyping his popularity. Unlike some other high-paid athletes, he's living up to his ads. Ironically, the demand on Tiger was Just Do It. Now, he is. Like Nicklaus 35 years ago, Woods is intimidating the whole field. Except, now, the field is better and deeper.
In golf, unlike many sports, everything eventually becomes glitteringly and incontestably clear. The prizes, the precedents, the bench marks by which greatness is measured, are universally known. In a sense, that is brutally harsh. At the highest altitudes of the game, only winning matters. When they let their hair down, great golfers admit that "runner-up" is more a disgrace than a distinction. When you're playing well, when you get those precious final-round chances, what do you do with them?
At the U.S. Open, for example, Woods finished third. All that will be remembered--all that should be remembered--is that he missed two vital short putts coming to the house. He might have won or forced a playoff. But he didn't. Everybody in golf says, "Nice try." Nobody ever means it.
Football has broken legs. Baseball has 98-mph fastballs at your head. What has golf got that--by the hard-edged standards of athletes--deserves respect? The answer: mind-bending, personality-testing, heart-cracking pressure. The absolute pressure to win, not just play well. Tom Watson never won a U.S. Open until, after 10 failures, he admitted how much it meant--to him and his place in history--to win his national title.
Championship golf is not about technique, mechanics, getting the breaks or giving your best, Watson conceded. Not if you want to sit at the table with Hogan and Palmer. "It's about winning," said Watson. "Find a way."
When Woods arrived at the PGA Championship at Medinah in August, he was the most talented golfer in the world and, along with David Duval, part of an excellent argument about who should be ranked No. 1 on earth. After Woods won that title, everything began changing. And fast. Hardly a week has gone by since then when Woods has not altered his self-portrait.
After Medinah, Woods has played like--well, like another Nicklaus. He is now the king. No, it's not too soon to say it. And he's beating everybody over the head with the scepter.
On the first playoff hole on Sunday, Angel Jimenez had a familiar expression on his face. He was the defender isolated on Jordan with five seconds to play and the score tied. He was the pitcher facing the Babe in the ninth inning. He was the boxer who suddenly realized the round had arrived in which The Greatest Of All Time had foretold his knockout. Probably in a poem.
Woods "piped one" 300 yards down the middle. Jimenez visited the autumn foliage on the left. Make out that $1 million check to Tiger.
It's conceivable--remotely conceivable--that Woods will not regain his eight-win form in the future. No game is as mean and deceitful as golf. Johnny Miller, after his eight wins in '74, spent a winter clearing woods near his new home, gained 15 pounds of muscle and, for the rest of his life, lost his almost magical scoring touch with his irons. He was never the same.
That's not how Tiger's story is going to end. When he came on Tour in '96 and won immediately, that was one psychic hurdle. The '97 Masters was another. Enduring his one-win, $1.8 million "slump" of '98 constituted yet another kind of test. After his $6.6 million season in '99, there are no higher hurdles to leap. Tiger knows how to win, how to endure failing to win and how to doggedly rework his game until it improves. Except for the difficult task of repeating it for two more decades, that's all there is to golf greatness.
In the '00s, few if any of our games figure to have a rising star with a realistic chance to be the greatest of all time in his sport. Let alone become one of the greatest of all time in any sport. At least we now have Tiger--our man for the "Naughties."
Just as the millennium ends, he has finally, and completely, arrived.