Such was the case about 10 years ago during a visit to a local middle school class. One youngster raised his hand, and when called on, was ready with his question:
Who's the greatest athlete in history?
Not the best football, soccer or basketball player, man or woman. Just the greatest athlete, period.
It came as a surprise, so I stumbled trying to come up with the best answer. That day, in that late-1990s context, I threw out a handful of candidates: Muhammad Ali, Pel, Willie Mays, Carl Lewis, Wayne Gretzky, Jim Brown, Bill Russell.
My No. 1 choice, that day, was Michael Jordan. He had been so dominant, taking a handful of Chicago Bulls teams to championships, elevating his teammates and the game itself.
Nobody argued at the time. But if another kid asked the same question now, the final answer would be different. Nothing against Jordan, whose monstrous accomplishments have not diminished with the passage of time. It's just that somebody else is more deserving.
That would be Eldrick "Tiger" Woods.
He now has won 14 of golf's major championships, all in the past 11 years. He is on track to become the first pro athlete to surpass $1 billion in career earnings. He has dominated his individual sport single-handedly for more than a decade, and he shows no sign of slipping or losing his hunger at 32.
Staying at the top for this long in a growing international sport, with no other player on the planet able to challenge him on a consistent basis, has been incredible to watch.
And if you saw the U.S. Open, through the weekend and then the 19-hole playoff on Monday, you should have a better understanding of why Woods towers over the game.
He hadn't played a competitive 18-hole round in two months, returning from arthroscopic left-knee surgery (in a sport that, at the highest level, puts tremendous pressure on the knees and back), grinding through not four but five days of ultra-pressure golf on the longest course ever played for a major and at sea level, through heavy oceanside air. He was rusty, and he was clearly grimacing at times. But he didn't back off, despite obviously not being as sharp as usual. He was still cranking out 300-yard drives, even if he wasn't so sure where they were going.
And he won. Not just another Buick Invitational, but his third U.S. Open.
Arguably, this was Tiger Woods at no better than 80 percent. Now we know he played with a torn knee ligament and stress fractures, making his feat even more amazing. But the mental part has always separated him from the rest, and it did again at Torrey Pines.
Phil Mickelson, whom many rate No. 2 (he's a distant second in the latest world ranking, was healthy and psyched to win on the course where he grew up. But he finished tied for 18th, seven strokes behind.
What we're seeing here is the greatest golfer in history sorry, Jack Nicklaus fans, that debate is over now making his case as the greatest athlete in history.
Go ahead and argue that we won't know for sure until Woods is done. (Can we even imagine him at 50, bringing the Champions Tour to its knees?) You can wait until later, or you can join those of us already willing to acknowledge the truth.
Tiger Woods is all by himself now, pushing toward heights nobody has reached or perhaps ever will.
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