Is Tiger too good for the game of golf?
Once in a generation, an athletic superman will stir the world's sporting multitudes with wonder on a scale to inspire cults and to overshadow kings, generals, and stock-market prophets.
But nobody has done it in the pressure tank of public scrutiny that put Tiger Woods this weekend to the ultimate test of the athlete who would be a champion of the ages.
During the final round of the PGA Championship Sunday, he sealed his right to all those superlatives when the game became pure theater. When all of the opportunities to lose were there - when the galleries and his opponent knew that he was not invincible - the champion found a way to be a champion.
Somebody in the endless post mortems expressed a fear, though. Tiger, he said, obviously can win in any venue and circumstance. Will Woods's dominance turn his competition into a caricature, demoralize the field, and therefore making golf the net loser in the long run?
The people who monitor the television are going to giggle at those anxieties. So will most of Woods's more prominent opponents. Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els, and Bob May talked candidly this week about Tiger Woods and his three straight major victories - the US Open, the British Open, and now the PGA. Those accomplishments put him a zone that seems to defy reality, they said.
But most professional golfers are spiky characters who don't abide fairy tales and know that Woods hasn't dissolved the competitiveness of professional golf.
They also know, however, that golf has never experienced the kind of visibility - one that on Sunday carried the game right to the brink of public enchantment - that it does today because of the aura of Tiger Woods. You can seriously argue that with the possible exception of President Clinton, Woods happens to be the most visible human being on earth, and both his ratings and his cash flow are a lot better.
Measures of dominance
How much does he dominate and how much of a threat is it?
Michael Jordan ruled basketball as no player has for decades. He thrust his team into a string of consecutive championships, and no noticeable competition was in sight for a couple of those years, but pro basketball flourished as never before when Jordan starred, and in fact, has declined without him.
And why is that?
The skills and panache of a once-in-a-generation athlete will captivate the viewing public and fill the arenas, even when that athlete is beating all of the body juices out of the home team and destroying them in the playoffs.
The artistry and skill of the supreme athlete become a kind of universal resource to the sports public. The gallery is connected with the superstar, almost in a proprietary way. Jordan might have thrown the Knicks into disarray. But the New York public loved to see him play, his bravado under pressure and his command, to feel his charisma.
His performance as an opponent never seemed to draw their ire. He won, but that hardly offended the Knicks' crowds, or the Celtics' fans. When Jordan played, the arena became a concert hall. When he had it all together, his performance was that of a virtuoso, and the audience responded that way.
Does Tiger Woods, and his early age, compare with other dominant superstars of their game? With the Muhammed Alis, the Jordans, the Babe Ruths?
Almost certainly, and if anything, his supremacy at this stage of his career is even more emphatic.
How many ways can he win?
He can win in an easy gallop, as Tiger did in the US Open. He can win in the face of an attempted last-round ambush by David Duval, as he did in the British Open.
Or he can win as he did Sunday, when a wonderful obscurity like Bob May hounds him for hours with his underdog tenacity. A Bob May playing indomitably, looking vaguely like the neighbor butcher thrust into the international limelight - but playing unafraid and matching the best golfer on earth, birdie for birdie, escape for escape. But he still lost to the hard-crust will, the power, the precision, and the nerveless creativity of Tiger Woods.
He is winning championship after championship in a game of hard-skulled competitors, a game where the athlete is on his own, and in which the difference between greatness and mediocrity is microscopic, less than a stroke a round.
Woods knows that. And because he does, he doesn't have the time or the nature to indulge showmanship or flamboyance. He electrifies the crowds with his strength and his uncanny art on the putting green, and his absolute belief that he will recover from some imminent catastrophe, and he does.
He worries and glowers. Muhammad Ali had charisma, the quality of igniting the crowds with both his ferocities and his personality. Michael Jordan had that. Woods, though, doesn't turn on much charisma. It's an event when he smiles after a good shot. His is the concentration of combat. He's smart and together and always prepared, and sometimes in dealing with people around him, he's ruthless and cold.
But the true measure of a champion for the ages was the one the Tiger confronted Sunday in the gloaming in Louisville, Ky. He's the best there is. But he was wobbling late in the game, ready to be taken, the PGA about to be snatched by a heroic nobody who himself had now rallied the crowds.
But somehow, the heroic nobody was playing the game as though faintly doomed, because Woods was on the same green, matching Bob May's underdog deeds and his refusal to quit.
Neither quit. It was some of the finest golf and most vivid drama witnessed on television.
But the champion was going to win, and the galleries sensed that, and so did the Tiger. At the finish they were all exhausted, Tiger, May, and the galleries. And it was a condition that might have afflicted all of the millions who were watching the television, totally hypnotized.
And is that going to injure the game of golf?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society