Much has been made about the inevitability of Tiger Woods win at the PGA championship. It was a pretty sure bet that he’d win after tying the course record on Saturday and moving to the top of the leaderboard. He’s unbeaten going into the final round of a major either as the leader or tied for the lead.
Inevitable, probably, but not only because of Woods’ greatness.
There are plenty of reasons to sprinkle around, and the timidity of his opponents should be somewhere near the top of the list. When is somebody going to put some real heat on Tiger in the final round? I thought Luke Donald might be the perfect foil on Sunday. A Chicago resident and a former student at Northwestern, he had a comfort factor none of the other competitors shared. He has plenty of game, as evidenced by his play in the first three rounds.
And he’s considered to be on the verge of greatness.
Nothing could solidify that more than staring down Tiger in the final round of a major in the same pairing. But instead of a challenge, Donald faded off the leaderboard as if he really didn’t want to be there. Tied with Tiger on the first tee, he was a whopping seven shots back when they got to the tenth. Seven shots! Between Tigers 40 foot bombs for birdies and Donald’s shaky play (and a couple of bad breaks); Woods only had to keep breathing on the back to take his 12th major title.
So who is Tiger’s competition?
Clearly nobody currently on Tour can handle him. He competes with history, and currently history rates Jack Nicklaus as the best ever. Nicklaus finished with 18 professional majors, and the universal acclaim as the best player ever. I saw Hogan and Snead play at the end of their careers, so I can’t say how Nicklaus’ career matched up to theirs. But I saw Jack in his prime and he controlled the game, much like Tiger does now. Nicklaus supposedly had a weak wedge game, but much like Woods is given credit for now, he dominated every phase of the game. He was the best driver, the best putter, and best long iron player and managed his game better than anybody.
I agree that the fields are deeper now than they were in Jack’s heyday. He had to beat maybe 10 guys in the field on a regular basis. Tiger has a deeper field, but doesn’t have the legendary foes that Nicklaus had to face. Jack had to beat Arnold, Watson, Player, Trevino and other Hall of Famers in order to collect his major championships. Tiger has the occasional Bob May to slay, but knows going in, it’s him versus the field.
Perhaps Woods has elevated his game to another plane that nobody can get to. I’ve often noted that he’s the best athlete out there and he’s the vanguard of what I think will be a whole generation of great athletes who choose golf, thanks to Tiger. There’s plenty of money in it, it’s glamorous and has a long career span. Really, if you were going to have a pick up basketball game and your talent pool to pick from was the PGA Tour, who’d be your first pick?
How about a touch football game? A 100-yard dash? Whatever, you’d take Tiger.
Add that athletic ability to the obvious mental capacity, the dedication to practice, the personal discipline of his fitness routine and a little bit of magic, and you have the best player out there.
I’ve admired Nicklaus’ ability to balance his life and his career. By the time he was 30, Jack and his wife Barbara had four children. But Nicklaus kept winning. Tiger has chosen to focus on his career, and solely his career for now. Nicklaus was the first player to take some weeks off, during the golf season but for most of his career, it was Jack vs. the other best players in the world every week there was a tournament. Tiger only faces other guys in the top five at the Majors and a couple of other tournaments during the year.
You can’t compare scorecards because of the equipment changes and advancements in agronomy, but it would be interesting to see the great players of the last 100 years face each other on a level playing field. You’d see a similar dedication and desire to win among them all. Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones, Snead, Nelson, Hogan and the rest didn’t worry about what else was going on, they worried about getting the ball in the hole.
I did hear somebody say that those players, including Nicklaus didn’t have to deal with the media attention Tiger faces today. I laughed at that, recalling what the final holes of championships used to look like with the crowd on the frog hair of the greens and the press right in their face. There was no media management in that era. The press was king and did what they wanted. I’d call that a wash.
Want to compare travel? Hogan played in the British Open once because it took a long boat ride to cross the Atlantic and it was plenty expensive. Nicklaus drove or flew commercial for most of his career. Arnold became a pilot and flew his own plane from tournament to tournament (and still does.) Tiger faces none of those challenges.
So while I think he’s a great player and among the greats of the game, a little perspective should come into the discussion before anointing anybody the “Greatest of All-time.” When Tiger gets to 18 major wins, and I believe he will, that’s when the real scrutiny and debate should begin.