Sunday, August 27, 2006


Eldrick “Tiger” Woods is a truly remarkable sportsman.

In today’s world, the gap between individual’s sporting capabilities is getting closer and closer. We see improved training methods, increased levels of practice, higher levels of diet, attitude training, psychological support and equipment being applied to every form of sport, and the result is a seemingly inexorable improvement in the levels of achievement. But then, someone comes along who blows that trend totally out of the water.

It seems to happen on a random basis, with no real pattern as to which sport is affected. You think of Cassius Clay, Don Bradman, Jonah Lomu and if you know a bit more about other sports than I do, you’d probably add a couple more. But that would be it.

Apart, in my view, from Tiger Woods.

You can wince a bit at the way his whole life was fashioned by his father to be a great golfer if you like, but, in the end, the argument comes down to looking at what someone achieves, rather than how they did it or what sort of person they were.

Woods plays in a sport which excites interest in the most sophisticated parts of the world, and, as a consequence, one where a huge number of people aspire to the untold riches and adulation that the game can provide. With all that level of competition, it is quite amazing that Woods has been able to stamp his presence so absolutely and dominantly on the game for such a long time.

At the time Woods exploded onto the golfing scene in 1997, almost everyone would agree that Jack Nicklaus was the best golfer the world had ever seen. This is the sort of discussion that keeps Pubs permanently in business. Nicklaus had been the man to beat for so long, partly because he had amassed an unassailable total of 18 Major Title wins over his career, and partly because of the way he dominated his opponents. Conventional wisdom was that the golfing world had changed so dramatically since Nicklaus started that no-one, even someone as potentially good as Woods, would ever be able to match the scale of Nicklaus’s achievements.

Then Woods started to win, starting with the Masters in 1998, where he finished a hysterical 12 shots in front of the second placed man. What a way to present your credentials. And several of his other Major wins have also been by margins that make you wonder about the dedication of the other players in the field.

Nicklaus took 25 years to build his 18 Major titles, and as we speak, Woods, in spite of a couple of lean years when rebuilding his swing and knee surgery intervened, has a current total of 12, and he has only just turned 30. Since his surgery, he has won 7 of the last 11 Major Tournaments played – just read that sentence again – utterly remarkable. Can you imagine what other members of the Tour must think when someone of Wood’s calibre takes a year off to remodel his swing to make further improvements, when he had already reached the No.1 spot in 4 Majors already.

He does seem to have a unique ability to withstand the huge “last day” pressure of a Major almost without tripping up. On the 11-12 occasions he has led a Major Tournament after 3 rounds, he has won every single one! Even when he has “failed” and ended up in a play-off, he has won these 14 times out of 16. If that’s not domination of your opponent, I don’t know what is.

If you choose to trawl through the statistics on the game, you cannot cease to be utterly astounded by what he has achieved. Anyone who doesn’t think he is currently the best golfer on the planet by a massive margin, will need to present his case very interestingly and very inventively.

As a comparison, a bit closer to home, let’s compare Woods to Colin Montgomerie. Monty has been on the scene longer than Woods, and for a few years was regarded as the No.2 golfer in the world. His record compared to Woods looks much less impressive, but he has won the European Tour of Merit 8 times – in itself a truly staggering achievement. No-one seems to mention this, since all they harp on about is that he is the best golfer never to have won a Major.

Tellingly, he has been second in Major Tournaments no less than 5 times – but second is a million miles away from winning. So, unless you live in Monty’s home town, or your name is also Mongomerie, very few people would come down on the Scotsman’s side when asked who they thought was the World’s Best Golfer.

So that’s sorted then. Woods, by a mile. End of sentence. New paragraph.

And now as I write this approaching September, our golfing thoughts turn to the Ryder Cup – in this writer’s opinion, simply the greatest sporting event on the planet. Ever since some genius in 1979 decided to expand the UK team to include the rest of Europe, this 3 day match has consistently delivered the highest voltage sporting emotion you could imagine.

Here again, just like in the World’s Major Tournaments, Woods’s and Montgomerie’s scoring records, since 1997, also show hugely dramatic differences. They are summarised below.

Played 20 vs 19

Won 7 vs 13

Lost 11 vs 3

Drawn 2 vs 3

The fascinating fact about the figures you see above is that Monty’s results are the one’s in red on the right, and Woods are the blue ones on the left. In what is the most pressurised, televised tournament in the whole game, Mongomerie’s record is truly heroic, and Woods’s is, and this is being very generous, extremely poor.

Why is this? Is it that Wood’s intense personal focus does not sit well with the need for team involvement? Is it that he has to team up with people he spends the rest of his life trying to demolish? Is it that he cannot bring himself to talk to his partners? As one American commentator very elegantly put it just the other day, - “The hangman doesn’t play on the prison softball team.”

You’d have thought that with all the “God Bless America”-ing that goes on at the Ryder Cup, the whole of the USA team would be prepared to die in the attempt to win, but it simply doesn’t seem to play out that way. They really envy out “teamness”, and I still harbour a little hope that Woods will, even though he will try not to, remember that in the last 4 Ryder Cup Tournaments, his total contribution, at the end of Day 1 was 1 point out of 8.

It’s quite nice to realise that, in someone who has developed invincibility to an artform on the big Golfing Day, there is one part of his game where, to date, he’s actually not even good enough to be called ordinary. You must wonder why Woods is unable to approach each Ryder Cup match as if it was the last day of a Major tournament, and equally you might wonder why Monty is unable to treat the last day of Major as if it was a Ryder Cup match. If that had happened, the golfing universe over the last 10 years would have been a very, very different place.

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