Tiger Woods: The Greatest Individual Athlete Ever


MEDINAH, Ill., Aug. 21, 2006 — -- You should probably sit down for this one. That's because I'm about to offend anybody and everybody who thinks golfers rank below rhythmic gymnasts, bowlers and tractor-pull drivers on the sports food chain.

Tiger Woods is the greatest individual athlete of our time. OK, of all time.

There, I said it and it feels right, especially after Woods just left Medinah Country Club with what seems like his millionth major championship. Once again, he left divot marks on the rest of the field and bruise marks on the record books.

Nobody kisses more silver than this guy. On Sunday, Woods was busy romancing the Wanamaker Trophy, which is what you get after winning the PGA Championship. It was his third makeout session with the trophy, having won the thing in 1999, 2000 and now 2006. If it happens again, they'll have to get a hotel room.

But this isn't about golf anymore. Woods doesn't have anybody within a par-5 of him on tour. I thought Phil Mickelson was good enough to challenge Woods, but he isn't. Not now. Maybe not ever.

Woods has escaped golf's gravitational pull and moved into a planetary system that includes your one-namers (Pele, Babe, Jack), your initialers (MJ), your nicknamers (The Great One, The Greatest), your oldies (Jim Thorpe, Willie Mays, Joe Louis), your Olympians (Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis), your netters (Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras), your others (Lance Armstrong). I know I'm forgetting someone, but it doesn't matter. Woods is better.

There comes a time when golf greatness morphs into something beyond recognition, something so singular that you have difficulty explaining it. It defies comparison, context and reason.

Can you explain Woods? I can't. I'm not even sure Woods fully understands the ripple effect of his achievements. All I know is that there has never been anyone like him. You tell your children about him, and maybe, if they stick around long enough, they tell theirs.

This was Woods' 12th majors victory. He moved past Walter Hagen, who was no slouch, and to within six car lengths of Jack Nicklaus and the Golden Bear-mobile. Woods could pass Nicklaus and those 18 championships within two years. Crazy? You tell him.

"When you first come out on Tour you just hope to win one," said Woods.

Hope isn't part of the equation these days. Woods doesn't need it. Maybe when he turned pro in 1996, but not now.

Nicklaus is the lone remaining mortal challenge left for Woods -- and Nicklaus doesn't even play on tour anymore. At age 30, Woods is already chasing and catching legends. Hagen on Sunday ... Nicklaus in 2008, 2009, or 2010. His career is now about numbers and legacies.

The truth is he has neutered, for lack of a better word, his peers. They aren't the challenge; history is. Woods has won four of the last eight majors. He owns the lowest 72-hole scores in relation to par in the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and is tied for the PGA record. He's missed the cut exactly four times in his career. Jeez, how many times can you rub your eyes in disbelief.

"I mean, we all smirk and laugh when he says he's got his 'B' game, but that's better than most of our 'A' games," said Shaun Micheel, who won the 2003 PGA. "He's just that good."

Micheel finished second Sunday. He shot 13-under for the tournament, which would have won the last four PGAs. Woods still beat him by five strokes.

Woods entered Sunday's round with one of those streaks that doesn't seem possible: 11-0 when he begins the final round of a major with at least a share of the lead. But he was never truly challenged by anyone on the leaderboard and the streak now stands at 12-0.

"It will happen eventually," said Sergio Garcia of a possible Woods Sunday falter. "It's going to happen. I mean, he's not going to be 68 years old and in the final round of a major and tied for the lead and he wins."

Are you sure? If Mick Jagger can still play gigs with the Stones when he's in his 60s, why can't Tiger still be sinking putts in majors when he's pushing 70? After all, he's in better shape.

Early Sunday evening, with the Wanamaker Trophy within easy hugging distance, Woods talked about his friendship with Michael Jordan. They recently played golf in Orlando and afterward, Jordan knocked down shots in the club's indoor basketball court. "MJ's still MJ," said Woods.

But Jordan is no Woods. Nobody is.

Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. Arguably. With Woods, there is no debate. Only injury stands between Woods and any record worth owning.

Woods is an athlete, not just a mope with a golf swing. You can build a condo development across his shoulders. His waist looks like a size 4.

His intensity and focus would translate into any sport. He doesn't trash talk like Jordan did, but he doesn't have to. The way the ball comes off his club face simply sounds different.

What great athletic trait doesn't he possess? Take your time. I can wait.

Woods performs better when the world is lined up six-deep around the fairway. Pressure? He eats it with a glass of Chianti and some fava beans.

You take Jordan or Gretzky, Ali or Babe Ruth, the Say Hey Kid or Martina. I'll take Woods. I'll take him because of what he's done and what he's yet to do.

Scary, isn't it? He isn't finished winning. Not even close.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events