Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bob Ryan: I get a kick out of Tiger

Boston Globe
February 26, 2008

Final Day of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship
Tiger Woods secured his win over Stewart Cink on the 29th hole of the Match Play Championship, 8 and 7.

Where is Cole Porter when we need him?

In his 1934 composition "You're The Top," Porter equates the object of his affection to such things as the Coliseum, the Louvre museum, a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, the Tower of Pisa, the Mona Lisa, Mahatma Gandhi, Napoleon brandy, the National Gallery, Garbo's salary, the "purple light of a summer night in Spain," cellophane, a turkey dinner, the time of the "Darby" winner, an O'Neill drama, Whistler's mama, the "nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire," camembert, Inferno's Dante, the "nose on the great Durante," a Waldorf salad, a Berlin ballad, an old Dutch master, Lady Astor, the steppes of Russia, and a Roxy usher.

Today, I suspect, Mr. Porter would probably say something along the lines of, "You've got the goods/you're Tiger Woods" (hey, he went to Yale; I was rejected).

But I have absolutely no doubt a man as astute as Cole Porter would have included Tiger Woods on any general list of things deemed to be the quintessence of excellence in our society.

You don't have to be a golfer to recognize that Tiger Woods stands astride his sport as no man ever has in his. As astonishing a thought as it might have been to grasp in 2000, 2004, or even last year, we have not yet seen the best of Tiger Woods. We are now seeing an even better, more refined, and possibly even more determined Tiger than we've ever known. We are looking at someone who, even more than being physically superior to everyone else, is wired like no one else. He is a combination of Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, and he isn't burdened by teammates.

No golfer, now or ever, truly expects to win every time he tees it up in a tournament. It is a preposterous notion, because golfers battle both each other and the golf course. The normal line separating the good golfers from the great ones and the great ones from the excellent ones and the excellent ones from the inner-circle ones is almost invisible. The margin of error for these people is infinitesimal. Really fine golfers can go from winning tournaments to losing their cards in one year. Their lives can change very quickly.

All the other golfers want to win. Some who make fine livings can only dream of winning. They accept the vagaries of their profession. The Mickelsons, Singhs, Elses, Goosens, Scotts, and Chois all accept the idea that some weeks they just won't have it. Some weeks, in fact, they will miss the cut. C'est la vie. Life goes on.

There is one, and only one, exception. The normal rules of this sport do not apply to Tiger Woods. He truly expects to win every time out. He expects to win the Bay Hill tournament next month. He expects to win the Masters at Augusta, he expects to win the US Open at Torrey Pines, he expects to win the British Open at Royal Birkdale, and he expects to win the PGA at Oakland Hills. The simple truth is that he truly, honestly expects to win every tournament he enters in 2008. No one else thinks like that. No one ever has.

Credit: Robert Beck/SI

Oh, and Tiger doesn't miss cuts. Everyone else does. They know it's part of the deal. Not for Tiger it isn't. In the last three-plus seasons he has missed only three of 54, and one of those times he had no business playing. He thought he was ready to compete in the aftermath of his beloved father's death, but he wasn't.

We used to joke back in the beginning of this century that the only two things that could possibly derail Tiger were injury and romance. We don't know about the former but the early returns are that he is having no trouble adjusting to the latter. Marriage hasn't deterred or distracted Tiger from the successful completion of his appointed rounds, and neither has fatherhood. The two new women in his life have strengthened him, not sidetracked him.

Tiger's performance in the Accenture Match Play Championship at the Gallery Club in Marana, Ariz., will go down as one of the greatest exhibitions of golf the world has ever known. During his six winning matches, he played 117 holes. He had 47 birdies and two eagles, lipping out a 35-foot eagle putt Sunday that would have enabled him to halve a hole with the bewildered Stewart Cink. OK, so maybe the Gallery Club isn't Royal Birkdale or Oakland Hills. It is a challenging enough layout to have been deemed worthy of staging a very prestigious tournament. I didn't notice anyone else ripping off birdies or eagles on 42 percent of the holes.

He started his week by extricating himself from a three-down-with-five-holes-to-play hole against J.B. Holmes by going birdie, birdie, birdie, eagle, from holes 14 through 17 before clinching the match with a shot to within 2 feet of the cup on the 18th hole. He finished his week by demolishing Cink, a three-time Ryder Cupper, by a record 8-and-7 score in Sunday's 36-hole finale.

But record scores are now Tiger's norm. Since last September, he has established tournament records four times.

Beginning in 2005, Tiger Woods has entered 54 tournaments and has won 23 of them, while placing in the top three in 11 others. Golf has become a worldwide phenomenon. The fields today are the deepest of all-time. Yet Tiger Woods has an almost incomprehensible success rate.

Tiger has already had a great year by anyone else's standards. He has played thrice, and, of course, has won thrice, earning $2,707,717, and it isn't even March.

Tiger doesn't talk about money - ever. He came onto the PGA Tour in 1996 with a fat Nike contract, so he has never stood over a putt thinking about the financial consequences of a miss. This, of course, is a tremendous advantage, but it is one he earned and deserved. Tiger has always been about winning, period, and the money that comes along with all that winning is a pleasant byproduct of his obsession and his skill.

If you are a true sports fan, how can you not root for Tiger Woods? He is treating us who love sport to living history. We are privileged to be watching a dedicated craftsman at the peak of his game. We are in the presence of the most accomplished athlete this country has ever produced.

Tiger Woods is so good, he might even have had Cole Porter reaching for the thesaurus.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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