Disagreement invariably runs rampant when talk turns to discussing best-ever athletes. Seldom are there two such spectacular examples as were presented for consideration earlier this week:
*Tiger Woods decimated the field in golf's US Open at Pebble Beach, Calif., winning by an astounding 15 strokes. This is the biggest margin of victory ever in one of the majors; the closest to it was when someone you've never heard of won the British Open by 13 - in 1862.
*And the incomparable Larry Bird coached the Indiana Pacers to the brink of the NBA title before the team reluctantly and narrowly succumbed to the Los Angeles Lakers.
So is Woods the best golfer ever? Depends. Although he only became a pro in 1996, already he's the leading career money winner by almost $2 million with $16.2 mil. However, this reflects more the growth of golf and economic times than sheer talent.
Example: Legendary Arnold Palmer won more than 80 pro tournaments, including seven majors, but earned just $1.8 mil, 168th on the list.
This is Woods's third major tournament win. But three golfers were younger when they won their third: Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, and Bobby Jones.
Jumping eras to compare is fraught with danger. Mighty Ben Hogan was a giant in the game, and he did it with none of the dramatic improvements in equipment, courses, physical conditioning, and travel. His game was sizzling and sterling.
Woods, winner of 12 of his last 21 tour events and 20 all together, is dominating the current generation of golfers - Ernie Els, David Duval, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Hal Sutton. Most significant is that Woods has whipped them mentally. Said Els of Woods after Pebble Beach, "I knew I had no chance."
There's no question Woods is the best driver (at the Open, his drives averaged 299.3 yards) and the best with irons. And now, his once shaky short game is world class. His complete game was a joy to watch at the Open, although Tom Kite says of the scope of Woods's victory, "It's not real exciting for everyone else."
A potential problem looming for Woods will be keeping his life organized so that he can concentrate on his golf and not wander off into too many off-course - but enormously profitable - activities. At times, Nicklaus has been distracted by dollars to his detriment. Greg Norman has had his head on a financial swivel
So is Bird the best basketball player ever? Depends. The obvious discussion is whether he was better than Michael Jordan. Many think not. Jordan won more NBA titles (6) than Bird (3) and scored more. Edge to Jordan.
But wait. Bird lacked speed and jumping ability, so he developed the uncanny knack of anticipating what would happen in order to succeed. Jordan, with his over-the-top skills, didn't have to do any such compensating. Edge to Bird.
Significant is that Bird coached three years, willing the Pacers from average and underachieving to great and almost brilliant.
For an extraordinary player to be able to deal effectively as a coach with those of substantially less ability is rare. Donnie Walsh, Pacers president, once said, "When he talks, you come into his world."
By moving into coaching and succeeding grandly - unlike, for example, Magic Johnson, a marvelous player who failed miserably at coaching - Bird adds a line to his rsum that nobody else can. Edge to Bird.
Bird is leaving coaching, for good, he says, because "I'm not cut out to be a coach." The facts say otherwise.
Beyond their own sports, to tag Woods or Bird as best among all athletes is insupportable. What about Ali, Gretzky, Pel, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Jim Thorpe, Joe Louis, Billie Jean King, Secretariat? To compare a slap shot to a pull-up jumper is like comparing avocados to cotton candy.
But it seems fair that Woods, at a minimum, must win the British Open sometime and surpass Nicklaus's records (including 18 wins at majors) to stand atop golf's Mt. All-Time. And, maybe, Bird has to return to coaching (most likely with his old team, the Boston Celtics) and win the NBA title to get people to reflect on his 13 years with the Celtics and remember how amazingly extraordinary he was - in every aspect of the game, including coaching.
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