Dominance sure stroke of greatness

June 20, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Michael Jordan was Tiger Woods. By age 24, he had made a game-winning shot in an NCAA final, scored 63 points in an NBA playoff game and won his first regular-season scoring title.

Wayne Gretzky was Tiger Woods. By age 24, he had won his first Stanley Cup, become the first NHL player to score 200 points in a season and produced a record 92-goal season that still stands.

Cal Ripken was Tiger Woods. By age 24, he had won a World Series, played in two All-Star Games and been named American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

Prodigies are not all that unusual in sports. But prodigies who dominate at the level of Woods and sustain their excellence over long careers are exceedingly rare.

That's what is so exciting about Woods in the wake of his astonishing 15-stroke victory in the U.S. Open. He is the best at his sport by a margin that no other athlete can approach. And at 24, there is still so much more he can accomplish.

The obvious comparison is to Jordan, both in athletic genius and sheer magnetism. But Jordan didn't win his first NBA title until he was 28. Woods has taken control of an individual sport at a younger age, unencumbered by a supporting cast.

A better comparison might be to Gretzky, who tied for the NHL scoring title in his rookie year, then won the next seven by an average of 66 points. But as a hockey player, Gretzky never faced the kind of scrutiny that Woods endures in golf.

In baseball, the best comparision is not Ripken but Greg Maddux, who set a major-league record in 1994 for the greatest ERA differential between an individual (1.56) and league (4.21). Maddux was 28 at the time.

Will Woods be the golfing equivalent of Edwin Moses, who won 107 straight 400-meter hurdle races from 1977 to '87? Of Pele, who led Brazil to World Cup titles in 1958, '62 and '70? Or Nolan Ryan, who was capable of throwing a no-hitter every time he took the mound?

Will he even be as good a golfer as Jack Nicklaus, who won 20 major tournaments?

There's no way to know, of course. But as was the case with Jordan, even casual sports fans are captivated by Woods' excellence. Even casual sports fans can't wait to see what he does next.

When Jordan retired, many believed that there would never be another athlete like him. But the thing about sports is, it's not static. It's fluid and limitless, placing no boundaries on human achievement.

At the U.S. Open, Woods didn't just push those boundaries; he bulldozed them down.

At first glance, his performance seems almost freakish, like Bob Beamon's record long jump in the 1968 Olympics or Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. But Woods is no stranger to major breakthroughs -- he won the Masters by a record 12 strokes in '97.

The extent of his U.S. Open triumph simply demonstrated his capacity for greatness, much like Michael Johnson's world-record 200-meter run in the 1996 Olympics. Johnson's time of 19.32 seconds broke his own world record by 0.34 seconds - and remains 0.36 seconds faster than the next-fastest time in history.

That "weird sense of calmness" Woods experienced at Pebble Beach? All the great ones experience it, from Jordan in the NBA Finals to John Elway in a two-minute drill, from Bob Gibson in 1968 to Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson in 2000.

Woods' sport might be the most mentally taxing. But the game seems to bend to his will.

He already has won six majors - three U.S. Amateurs, a Masters, a PGA and a U.S. Open. If he wins the British Open next month, he will be more than a third of the way to Nicklaus, at age 24.

The one caveat: Injuries could hinder Woods the way they have tennis star Pete Sampras, who at 28 is stuck on 12 Grand Slam titles, tied with Roy Emerson for the all-time record.

Woods has a relatively frail physique, and his swing places considerable strain on his back. Then again, he has worked with weights to become more muscular. He also has remade his swing to become an even better player.

His lack of competition ultimately could be an issue - even elite athletes need to be pushed, and it's possible that America could grow bored with the Woods phenomenon if he keeps winning majors by double-digit margins.

But Woods, like Jordan, appears almost entirely self-motivated, capable of creating his own challenges.

Jordan's critics said he would never win an NBA title; Woods' critics wondered if he possessed enough skill and savvy to win a U.S. Open.

Jordan broke opponents' wills in the fourth quarter; Woods entered the final day of the Open with the largest lead in tournament history, and still fired a 67 for the day's lowest round.

The Nicklaus record should be enough to drive him, and as his profanity-filled outburst at the end of the second round showed, Woods isn't likely to relax his extremely high standards.

Hard-core golf fans revere him because he is an electrifying talent who excels at every facet of the game. Casual fans love him because he shatters records with charisma and style.

In the end, he's not like Jordan, Gretzky or anyone before him.

He's Tiger Woods.

The world's most dominant athlete.

And still only 24.

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