Fier Thy Words

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Eye of the Tiger

6/16/08

I started writing this post at around noon on Monday, and it started like this.

After watching yet another dramatic putt touch the bottom of the cup, the greatest golfer in the world, Tiger Woods, continues to establish himself as not only the most dominant athlete in his sport, but arguably the most dominant athlete of this generation, and MAYBE the greatest athlete of all time.

Now, five hours later, and another unbelievable victory in yet another major tournament, how far away are we from anointing Tiger Woods as the greatest athlete of all time?

It’s a bold statement, and before venturing off into debating whether or not he’s the greatest ever, lets start with talking about the greatest athletes of a generation.

The first guy is Babe Ruth, who during the 1920’s and early 30’s was the best there was.

During a dead ball era when home runs were few and far between, George Herman Ruth brought a flair for the dramatic to a game which had never really experience a superstar of his kind.

No, he wasn’t the most graceful guy on the field, but man could he hit.

714 home runs later, including a single season best 60 until 1961, Ruth was first player who transcended his own sport, and became bigger than the game he played.

Being a great athlete has two primary requirements as far as im concerned.

Individual dominance in relation to your competition, and winning.

As far as Babe Ruth is concerned, he had the likes of Ty Cobb playing during the same era, and while Cobb didn’t hit for the power Ruth was able to, he holds the highest lifetime batting average in the history of the game, and until Pete Rose, held the record more most career hits with well over 4,000.

But Babe Ruth was dominant in a way Cobb wasn’t, as his power was a game changing threat every time he came to the plate.

And if you want to talk winning, Babe Ruth played on 4 world championship teams with the Yankees, in 1923, 1927, 1928 and 1932, while also winning 3 (while being a major contributor to 2) world championships with the Red Sox in 1915, 1916 and 1918.

Muhammad Ali is the next guy, as during the 1960’s and 70’s, there wasn’t a better fighter pound for pound.

Between 1960 and 1970, the man didn’t lose. At all.

31 bouts and not a single defeat, it wasn’t until 1971 when he faced Joe Frazier for the first of their 3 historic matchups, that Ali lost a professional competition. Sure enough, in their two subsequent meetings, Ali was victorious both times.

Finishing with a lifetime fighting record of 56-5 with 37 knockouts, Ali is regarded by almost all experts the greatest boxer of all time, and ESPN ranked him as the greatest US athlete during the 20th century.

For the first ten years of his fighting career, nobody was really close to his level of dominance, and upon meeting his match when he lost to an equally undefeated Joe Frazier, was far and away the most dominant athlete his sport had ever seen.

Michael Jordan is the third and only other athlete which belongs in the conversation (before bringing Tiger to the table), as he was never anything less than the greatest player on the floor during the prime of his career.

Jordan didn’t find championship glory until 1991, 7 years after being drafted 3rd overall by the Chicago Bulls in 1984, but once he put that first ring on, there 5 more to follow, including two separate 3-peats.

Jordan retired the most prolific scorer in the history of the game, and his 6 champions rank second only to Bill Russell, who has 11 to his name.

The obvious follow up point to made here is why Russell doesn’t enter into the conversation, and it’s a fair point because his winning is unmatched in professional team sports.

My thing with Russell, and of course he played during the 50’s and 60’s, half a century before I started watching sports, is that from everything I’ve read about him, he was probably the greatest defender and rebounder of his time, but his scoring was nowhere close to that of Jordan.

His career also crossed paths with Wilt Chamberlain, who is also considered by many to be among the greatest basketball players to ever live, if not the greatest ever. Having played the same position and achieved individual success Russell did not, the two seem to cancel each other out as both could be considered the greatest players of their generation.

Which leaves MJ, who when it came to the big moment, shined brighter than anyone.

Game winning shots were a frequent occurance, and the shot he made against Utah (pictured above) which for all intents and purposes ended his career (or the part of it worth remembering) is an everlasting image that will forever be awed at.

A 14 time All Star, a 5 time Most Valuable Player and a 6 time Finals MVP, nobody is more accomplished individually as Michael Jordan, and you throw on top of that his 6 championships and come away with another case to be made for the greatest athlete of all time.

So what about Tiger?

Comparing Golf to sports like baseball and basketball is difficult, because Tiger’s success on the golf course has been achieved without the help of a teammate. So in that regard, the best comparison to be made from those afformentioned would be with Ali.

However, we could start by talking about whether or not Tiger is the greatest golfer of all time.

At the ripe old age of just 32, Woods has compiled 14 major championship victories, second only to the legendary Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 major’s during a 24 year stretch, compared to the 11 years Tiger has needed to collect his 14.

Again, I’m not old enough to have ever watched Jack play during the peak of his career (he won his last Major in 1986 as I was born a year later), but based on not only how many times Tiger has won, but the way in which he has won, not to mention the fact he’s won just four fewer majors in more than half the time it took Jack to win his 18, the arrow would seem to point in the direction of Mr. Woods.

It is also difficult to compare the two based on the very different era’s in which they have competed, as Nicklaus played in an era where finesse and precision was more commonly seen as compared to today where mashing the heck out of the ball off the tee and chipping out of the rough is the more fashionable thing to do.

In fairness to Jack, not only does Tiger thrive his ability to hit the ball farther than most, but his short game is second to none. And this brings up the piece of evidence in not only defending the claim that Tiger is the greatest golfer to ever live, but is arguably the greatest athlete of all time.

The difference in competetiion, between Tiger- the world’s number 1 golfer for an unfathomable 500 straight weeks now- and the rest of the field, including Phil, Vijay, Ernie, etc- is so drastic that often it seems to be a smarter bet taking Tiger against all of his competitors, despite the odds.

Unlike a team sport, Tiger cannot dish and drive, as MJ, Magic and Kobe all had and have the ability to do if they run into s big guy down low. Tiger can’t pass off a long range putt to somebody standing closer to the hole for a one-timer the way Gretzky and Messier could have.

Not trying to take anything away from these other great athletes, but Tiger has won, and dominated in such a way- on his own- that it isn’t a reach to place him on a list before any and all other athletes who have played before his time or during it.

After winning his first major back in 1997, slipping on the Green Jacket at Augusta for the first of 4 times, Tiger seems to have a nact for coming up with the big shot- be it a drive, wedge, chip or putt- whenever the time calls for it.

Jordan is considered so great in part to his ability to perform under the most pressure pact conditions, and Tiger has thrived in conditions potentially more pressure-pact.

When lining up a 14 foot putt, Tiger has to analyze that green, determine any slopes or ridges to take into account, use the right amount of force while considering the speed of the green.

The basketball courts Jordan played on were always 94 feet long, the hoop was always 10 feet above the ground, and even though he had to deal with having his shots contested, the degree of difficulty, at least as far as im concerned, is non-comparable between taking an 18 foot jump shot and sinking an 18 foot birdie putt.

Need proof?  Check this out.

Ok, so how about comparing Tiger to Ali?

Ali didn’t have anybody out there in ring with him to tap in when he got too tired.

He also took far more physical punishment during 15 rounds (when his fights went that long) than Tiger takes during 4 rounds of 18 holes (and sometimes 5 plus a sudden death hole as was the case this past weekend).

And unlike Tiger, it took Ali more than 10 years of professional fighting to suffer defeat, while Woods- who wins a lot- suffered defeat professionally before success.

Margin of victory can be another way of assessing greatness, and in the case of Ali, he won by KO in 37 of 56 victories.  Tiger meanwhile, won his first major in 1997 by 12 strokes, and 3 years later won the US Open by 15 strokes.

I could probably spend hour and hours going through each of Tiger’s wins, big shots and achievements, but in the interest of saving some time and getting right to the point, lets try and determine where Tiger’s legacy, still very much a work in progress, compares to those of the greatest athletes to have ever lived.

It’s scary to think that at only 32 years old, Tiger probably still has some of the best golf ahead of him.

What also helps his cause is his immense popularity, along with his signature moments- be it a fist pump, the red shirt on Sunday or kissing another trophy- all help in creating the force that is Tiger Woods.

Looking back no further than this weekend, in what some are already considering to be one of the classic sporting events ever, Tiger, playing with a bum knee, rose to the occasion like only the greats can do, and overcame the adversity of both his injury and his competition to claim his 14th major title in just 11 years.  And his win wasn’t without one of those signature moments, in fact it included all three I mentioned.  A putt to force a playoff, in his Sunday red, sinking to the bottom of the cup giving us a reaction that only his fans can appreciate and his enemies likely despise.

Ali was a 9 time heavyweight champion and gold medal winner.  Jordan won 6 titles and Babe Ruth, a member of 7 world series championship teams, joins the other two in elite status, each being regarded among the best their sport, and sport in general, has ever seen.

Placing Tiger atop the list of golf’s greats isn’t much a stretch, and as his dominance and success continue, his place along side the likes of Ruth, Ali and Jordan might be a stretch.

That’s because as far as im concerned, his name belongs above them all.

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June 17, 2008 - Posted by | Sports | , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I agree with you: Tiger Woods is the greatest athlete of his generation…maybe of all time. There is simply nobody better when the pressure is on. Tiger has ice flowing through his veins. What a fantastic 2008 US Open!

    Comment by Erik | June 17, 2008 | Reply

  2. I keep forgetting that prior to this event Tiger hadn’t played golf in two months!

    I’m not sure what the golf world is going to do when this guy hangs them up. I enjoy golf, play it from time to time, watch the majors, etc. But unless Tiger’s in the lead or in the hunt, I tend not to care very much.

    Anyway, this was golf at its absolute best! Poor Rocco.

    Comment by Shane Bertou | June 17, 2008 | Reply


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