Monday, April 14, 2008

Tiger...Greatest Athlete Ever?

Why is it that whenever people talk about the greatest athletes of all-time and they mention Tiger Woods, they miss a crucial piece of his story? Those kind of lists usually include people like Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Wayne Gretzky and Jack Nicklaus. Admittedly, Tiger is amazingly good and has put up numbers that are unrivaled. But what he doesn't have that all the others do is a comeback that matters. Sure, Tiger has won thirteen majors and ocassionally dominated them, but he has never come from behind on a Sunday to win in a major.

Tiger is known not just for his successes but for his intensity. No one plays harder and focuses more than Tiger, it is often said. But that seems to disappear when he's not atop the leaderboard. It's almost like that killer instinct that he seems to possess on Sundays when he's in the lead just isn't there when he's not winning. It's been said that it's impossible to catch Tiger when he's ahead of you, but if you're ahead of him, it simply takes steady play and a sound game plan.

Each of the past two Masters tournaments are perfect examples. In 2007, Zach Johnson stuck to his conservative plan to lay up on par 5's and not try to do too much. The result was that his lead was not challenged by a trailing Tiger. This year, Trevor Immelman shot +3 on Sunday yet Tiger could do no better than par for the day and though he finished second for the second straight year, really did not challenge for the green jacket.

Chasing Jack Nicklaus' record of eighteen majors is of course an amazing accomplishment and if/when he breaks the record it will be celebrated the world over. But consider for a moment the 19 second place finishes (to Tiger's five), 46 top three finishes (to Tiger's 21) and 73 top tens (to Tiger's 28) achieved by the Golden Bear. Granted, Nicklaus played in majors every year from 1960-2000 while Tiger has only been playing in majors sine 1995. But the point is, Nicklaus routinely finished in the top 10 and higher in majors and once had a streak of 13 consecutive in the top 10. Tiger has finished in the top 10 five times in a row, twice.

This is not to slam Tiger or to say he's not as good as Nicklaus - some insult! It's just to point out that while Tiger wins a lot in majors, he seems to conceed the titles when he's not already out in front. A very curious way of playing in tournaments. Eventually, one must assume, he will come from several shots back with an amazing final round and win a major in climactic fashion. But until then, I think we need to hold off on the greatest ever athlete conversations.

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