Sports fans love to compare superstars. These comparisons are always subjective and subjected to various stretches of reason, but the discussion is fun in spite of the fact that there is never a definitive answer. It's all about banter. In reality the very idea of comparing Michael Jordan to Wilt Chamberlain is ridiculous. They played in different eras, under different rules and faced different obstacles. Never mind the fact that they played different positions, and if you want to talk about the different positions try quantifying the value of an offensive lineman in football. Impossible. Then we have those inane discussions where we try to transcend specific sports and speak in general terms about athletics. Crazy.
However at the age of 30, Tiger Woods has made a strong case for being dubbed the greatest athlete of all time. No, I can't crunch statistics to support that claim, my argument is esoteric. Before you dismiss me as one of those golf fanatics let me point out that I am loath to call most golfers athletes. Too many fat old white guys with a two-pack-a-day problem succeed in golf for it to be confused as an athletic pursuit, but Tiger Woods is different. Tiger has that quality that we rarely see in athletes. The fact that most of us have enjoyed three such athletes in the last 15 years is a anomaly. Tiger is cut from the same cloth as Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong...all three sharing the combination of admirable and deplorable traits that add up to athletic dominance. Yes, I said deplorable...sadly, a lot of what makes these guys great athletes also makes them lousy people. You can't be a great athlete without being a little selfish and egotistical.
Instead of wasting time arguing how Tiger compares to Joe Montana (who owes everything to Jerry Rice and Bill Walsh) I'll address a subject much closer to home: Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear is revered as the greatest golfer of all time and holds a lofty perch on almost anybody's all-time athlete list. He dominated golf for years, holding records for winning the most majors of any other golfer. Jack was impressive. Being from Columbus I can't help but be all too informed of how brilliant he was. To the point of nausea. Big town, small minds.
Tiger's well short of Jack's big stage accomplishments. With his recent British Open victory Tiger can only claim 11 majors to Jack's 18. Few people will argue that Tiger's best golf lies ahead of him since most golfers are at their best when other athletes are hanging on too long, but what Tiger has already accomplished is more impressive to me.
My point is that you simply can't compare Jack and Tiger stroke for stroke. I submit that you can't do that in any sport. Jim Brown's career rushing average is extremely impressive but he was a freak of nature in an era where football was still rather primitive. The same holds true for Jack...except Jack's advantages weren't physical, at least not in the manner Jim Brown's were, Jack was an elite golfer who had access to equipment, training and assistance few of his contemporaries had. Tiger faces a field of golfers who have access to everything he does. Many of the golfers Jack beat golfed as a hobby in hopes of finishing high enough to get a sponsorship and make a career of golf. Now, sponsors are abundant, purses are rich and simply qualifying for the PGA tour virtually guarantees a comfortable living.
Golf gets more exposure now than it ever did and that brings in more money. Since Tiger is already getting his share, more money is going to weaker golfers, that money is being invested in personal trainers, personal swing coaches, nutritionists and psychologists. In Jack's day the weaker golfers got day jobs and golfed with clubs straight of the shelf. Now, everybody has custom clubs that are specifically designed to enhance strengths and minimize weaknesses of each golfer. While one might think that the elite golfers benefit from those perks, the reality is a golfer as fundamentally sound as Tiger simply can't gain as much of an advantage as those with more glaring deficiencies. He's ahead of the curve and therefore can't get much help from custom clubs or special instruction. It's like a corked bat might help Omar Vizquel turn a couple of doubles into home runs, but a slugger like Manny Ramirez isn't going to benefit from a few more inches of loft. Tiger can only be hurt by inferior equipment, not helped by better gear.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle Tiger has faced is the fact the golf has conspired to beat him. The PGA and its member courses have tinkered with various holes to make them a little more difficult to play. Since the general idea is to lengthen holes while narrowing the fairways, long driving golfers are forced to use more finesse to work their way to the pin. This practice was referred to as "Tiger-proofing". When Tiger first burst onto the scene people were in awe of his drive. He turned 450 yard par fives into par threes by chipping to within 4 feet of the pin on his second shot. Tiger could accurately drive the ball 300 yards every time, now it seems every hole has some sort of hazard or at least a bad lay at that 300 yard marker.
Tiger's not the only guy to have a 300 yard drive, but he's one of the few heavy hitters to bring a formidable short game to the table. Before he came along the only golfer that combined tremendous power with such refined skill was Jack Nicklaus. The difference is that every club manager didn't spend 10 million bucks trying to take Jack's game out of the equation. There was never any "Bear-proofing". They might have softened up a few sand traps here and there, but we've seen wholesale changes in golf since Tiger came along. Even stoic Augusta National, home of sexism and bigotry, dared lay waste to Bobby Jones' legacy in order to lengthen the course and tighten up the approaches.
But that's not the half of it. Jack Nicklaus is a legend, but he was far from being a celebrity. Sure, golf fans will debate it but Jack's not, nor was he ever, as universally recognized as Tiger Woods. Even in his prime, Jack never saw the kind of crowds following him around the course that Tiger sees today. That's pressure. When Jack's dad died, people weren't sticking cameras in his face to get him reacting to a question about what his father meant to him. Tiger is essentially an A-list celebrity. And he doesn't like it.
Yes, that's the price he pays for the hundreds of millions of dollars he clears each year and at the end of the day he knows it's worth the sacrifice, but Tiger is not a media whore. He does his interviews after an event and disappears. He could have dated big name celebrities, done a reality show or even shot a thousand more commercials but Tiger seems genuinely uneasy with his celebrity status. He doesn't want it getting in the way of his golf.
With his rapid rise to mega-stardom, one would expect him to get distracted; after all, he's been striking balls since he was 3, but Tiger has remained focused. For a while it looked like he was getting sloppy, but once he adjusted to the changing courses and put his driver on the shelf he's been the top golfer in the world. He's that good. Instead of letting "them" take his game away, he went to work and proved that he can win regardless of the conditions. Make him shoot the back nine with a ping pong ball and he'll figure out how to bring it home 3 under for the day.
Tiger has faced all the big pitfalls. At 30 he lost his dad and responded by winning the British Open with that same stoic determination that made him impossible to beat a few years ago. He's gotten married, dealt with fame, fortune and negative publicity. And did I mention that he's a black man playing one of the whitest sports in history? Tiger is so cool and collected that most people forget he's black. Race shouldn't be a challenge or an issue, but we all know that it is. Tiger's probably heard more than his fair share of epithets on the course and you know he's read plenty of death threats from the sick pigs we share a planet with. With each obstacle he seems to get a little tougher and more determined. He's at an age when most golfers start contending for championships and he already has 11 majors to his name. Even though he'll eventually erase all doubt, there's little question that he's already accomplished more than anybody could have expected. He's the best and getting better.