Woods among greatest athletes ever, but not quite No. 1

August 22, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

Tiger Woods is the most talented golfer of all time. I don't think there is much doubt about that anymore.

He might be the most dominating professional athlete of his generation, which is saying quite a bit when you consider that Michael Jordan was still at the peak of his career when Tiger burst into the American consciousness.

But I have to take issue with my good friend and ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski for his column Sunday rating Tiger as the greatest individual athlete of all time.

I guess we're going to end up arguing semantics here. Tiger clearly is one of the most dominant individual sports superstars in history - and I'll be the first to admit that he has brought a whole new level of athleticism to the PGA Tour - but it's still tough for me to view golfers on the same physical plane as, say, boxers, track and field athletes and pro tennis players.

Tiger is playing so well right now that it's almost hard to imagine his losing another tournament, but if he is the greatest "athlete" of all time, how do you explain him ever losing to a guy who looks like John Daly?

I haven't done the research, but I'm willing to bet that Pete Sampras never lost a tennis match to a guy who weighed 280 pounds and smoked three packs a day. Golf is a game of tremendous skill, discipline and concentration. I might even concede that it is the most difficult individual sport to master, but Tiger isn't where he is because he can do more pushups than Sergio Garcia.

This is in no way an attempt to discount Woods' accomplishments or the work he puts in to be an imposing physical presence on the golf course. I'm not saying that golfers are not athletes. Far from it. I am saying that you can play on the PGA Tour without possessing world-class athleticism, but you can't win Wimbledon or set a dozen world swimming records without being a world-class athlete.

The reason there's a rush to anoint Tiger is because he is more than an otherworldly golfer. He is a social phenomenon and a worldwide sensation, and he deserves every accolade that comes his way while he rewrites the history of golf. But I submit that Muhammad Ali was a better athlete who also took his sport to a new level and will endure as a much more dynamic historical figure.

It's easy to look at Woods' success through the prism of recency and lose perspective. Jack Nicklaus, the yardstick by which everyone measures Tiger, was never suspected of being the greatest individual athlete of all time, and many of his greatest records still stand. Woods is well on pace to eclipse all of them, but it might be wise to wait until he does before jumping him ahead of Ali or Jim Thorpe or even Sampras or Michael Phelps.

Michael Phelps? I know that you're shaking your head and wondering how I could place our local swimming superstar in the same paragraph as Woods.

Well, if you strip away all the extraneous variables that make Tiger the most popular and bankable individual athlete in the world, you're left with two guys who are dominating their respective sports. The only difference - unless you're making the argument that golf is more of a sport than swimming - is that Phelps already holds almost all the relevant records in his sport and we're just assuming that Woods will eventually own all the important records in golf.

What this debate comes down to, as I mentioned earlier, is semantics. Woods has ascended to a rare altitude because he embodies a unique combination of skill, athleticism and cultural significance. In that regard, he almost rises to the level of Ali among the most important figures in the history of sport.

If that particular combination of qualities is what we now use to determine who is the greatest "athlete" of all time, then I suppose you can make the case that Tiger is in the ballpark. If it is just the level of domination over a particular sport - without regard to the current popularity of the athlete or the marketability of the sport in question - then this coronation might be a bit premature.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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