How sweet it is - Tiger's winning swing

Tiger Woods, sunsets, and music are identical because none can be effectively described in words. This means each must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated.

And when it comes to Woods, even watching gives immediate rise to wondering whether our eyes deceive.

By winning last weekend in Hawaii, Woods became the first pro golfer to win five tournaments in a row since Ben Hogan did it in 1953. Fellow golfer Ernie Els figures Woods is "probably going to be bigger than Elvis" in the future.

Wherever Woods goes, he is like a rock star. Excitement explodes into hysteria.

What is making Woods extraordinarily special is that he is delivering excellence. Too often, we are confronted with athletes who spend their time talking about how good they are. They pound their chests and point to themselves but routinely, their alleged excellence doesn't surface.

That Woods not only proves his excellence but does so on a remarkably consistent basis is what pumps us up. In fact, Woods need say nothing. The proof is in his performance.

How sweet it is.

To wit, in just over four years as a pro, he has won a stunning 16 tournaments - eight in 1999 - and is already No. 3 on the all-time money-winning list. He has won close to $12 million. Leaders Greg Norman and Davis Love III have only a half-million dollars or so more, a pittance for Tiger to make up given that he won more than $6.1 million last year.

In the First Century BC, Publilius Syrus wrote, "It takes a long time to bring excellence to maturity." That is normally the case, but with Woods, it hasn't taken long at all. He has already won two major tournaments, the Masters in 1997 and the PGA in 1999.

If there is any potential negative at all to Woods, it is that he must eventually win the other two majors, the US and British Opens, in order to be a contender for Greatest Golfer Ever. Should he end up winning 100 more professional events, but fall short of winning the US or British, he won't be so regarded.

But the chances of such a shortfall for Woods seem remote. No less an authority than Jack Nicklaus - who won all the biggies at least three times each, and the Masters six times - points out, "There isn't a flaw in his golf game or his makeup." Of course, some untoward event could snatch everything from Woods's grasp, but that's the great imponderable for athletes.

Expert observers have been mildly critical of Tiger's short game, but looking for chinks in the Woods game is to grasp at minor flaws. Besides, his short game is much improved, which makes it awfully good.

So if it is the excellence that draws us to Tiger, what are the intangibles that create the excellence?

*Woods's mental toughness. He has improved dramatically in this area since his college days at Stanford University in California. Proof: Of his 16 wins, he has won by just one shot five times - and needed a playoff to win four others. This requires nerves of titanium.

*His refusal to be discouraged. Amid media and public attention when he turned pro in 1996, Woods tied for 60th in his first start. That's not the stuff of a legend-in-waiting. But the next week, he finished 11th, which was a dramatic improvement. When he falters, he quickly dusts himself off and advances to higher highs.

*Woods seems to have almost lapped the field. Proof: He has won eight of his last 11 PGA tournaments. David Duval, who was second on the money list last year, albeit winning only about half as much as Tiger, says bravely: "I think I've met the challenge in the past, and I think I can meet it again." But another competitor, Justin Leonard, is more candid about Woods: "He has got himself focused, and we could be in trouble."

Although they didn't know it, other pros probably were in trouble when Woods was about two years old. Recalls Tiger's dad, Earl: "When he got out of the highchair, he had a golf swing." That swing, says Nicklaus, is "the finest, fundamentally sound golf swing I've ever seen."

Theognis wrote that "to few men comes the gift of excellence." Woods was awarded the gift, but he is taking it to unimagined levels. That's why we watch in awe.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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