Appeared May/June 2008 LINKS
In the mind of any clear-thinking golf aficionado, surely there is no longer a question of whether Tiger Woods is the greatest player of all time. All you Jones Junkies, Hogan Huggers and Nicklaus Nuts can put your placards down, because your boys just aren’t part of the conversation anymore. And please don’t try to pacify me with that old bromide: “All you can do is evaluate each player in the era in which he competed.” Sorry, but if Tiger could be beamed back in time, Bobby, Ben and Jack would be left gawking in his wake along with the rest of them.
For a while, I was in the “Let’s wait and see him win 19 majors” camp. Now, I don’t care whether he stays at 13 majors or wins another 13; Tiger in his first dozen years as a professional has already proved he’s the most dominant player the game has ever seen.
Indeed, it seems to me that the more interesting question is not whether he’s the best, but why. Having given it some thought, I think it boils down to the fact that he is the only member of the 4-H Club. Yes, that 4-H Club—the one with the kids on tractors. Remember their motto?
Head, Heart, Hands, Health. Tiger has all four—no other player ever has—in magnificent abundance.
When is the last time you saw Tiger play a foolish shot or blow a lead? Others may beat him on rare occasions, but he does not beat himself, never gets in his own way. From the 1st tee to the 18th green his laser focus never wavers. When he is behind going into the last round he always seems to know the number to shoot. His record in singles match play—a conspicuously mental game—is even more impressive than in stroke play.
Jones was probably the most intelligent guy to play the game at a high level, and Nicklaus’ strength of mind was surely equal to Tiger’s, but Jones didn’t have a commensurate measure of Heart or Health—he quit at age 28, thoroughly battered by the rigors of championship golf. And Nicklaus, despite a long and glorious career, was never as singleminded as Tiger. As Chi Chi Rodriguez famously quipped, Jack was a legend in his spare time.
Among Tiger’s current rivals, the guys with the steeliest minds seem to be Henrik Stenson and Geoff Ogilvy, but neither has a Head the equal to Tiger’s, let alone his three other Hs.
Heart is determination, drive, resilience, and guts. It’s relishing a challenge, never backing off, posting a good score when your game is not on, and summoning your best golf when it’s needed most. It’s also a willingness—even a thirst—to work your tail off, to explore every possibility for the sake of improvement. Tiger is the epitome of all those things.
Hogan, of course, was the original poster boy for Heart. Arnold Palmer had fair amount of it, and so did Gary Player. But Hogan and Player were small guys who had to scratch and claw for everything they got—they just didn’t have Tiger’s native skill (Hands), and the go-for-broke Palmer lived and too often died by the sword—he lacked Tiger’s Head.
Walter Hagen was a clever fellow who also rates highly on the Heart chart—four consecutive PGA Championship victories at match play are ample testimony—but the Haig’s legendarily flamboyant lifestyle made him a non-starter in the Health area.
Among today’s pretenders, Jim Furyk is a gutsy guy who knows how to manage his game—the problem is that he has palpably less game to manage than Tiger does. Vijay Singh and Padraig Harrington have the work ethic but clearly lack other ingredients of mind and body or their labors would pay off more frequently. Sergio Garcia has the competitive Heart but doesn’t temper it with a cool Head.
Hands are the raw talent part of the equation, the ability to swing a driver at 140 miles per hour yet still hit the ball straight; to pluck, scrape, gouge, pound and feather the ball from all manner of lies and situations along all sorts of trajectories and paths, consistently depositing it within the shadow of the flagstick; and then, to hole 99.9 percent of one’s putts of three feet and under—as Tiger does.
In virtually every round he pulls off a shot that no other player would dare attempt except in a practice round. As a putter he has no equal—partly because of his aforementioned strength of Head and Heart, but also because has an innate sort of feel.
The game’s history is full of great ball strikers—Harry Vardon, Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman—but none of them had Tiger’s full measure of tee-to-green magic. Probably the only ones in his class in terms of shotmaking virtuosity were Seve Ballesteros and Lee Trevino, each of whom could make the ball dance and had what Johnny Miller has aptly described as “a sixth sense” for the game.
But neither Seve nor Lee had Tiger’s Head or Heart. Seve was one of the game’s leading whiners (a mantle he seems to have passed on to Sergio) and Trevino, after a couple of poor early finishes at Augusta, talked himself out of ever winning the Masters.
On today’s Tour, only Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els seem to have Tiger-like talent but, once again, neither has his Head or Heart (or for that matter his Health). Witness their collective dozen or so collapses in the clutch of big events.
Few professional athletes of any stripe, much less in golf, are in better shape than Woods, thanks to his rigorous regimen of daily exercise. On most mornings he’s at work in the gym before all but a few of his tour colleagues have gotten out of bed. As a result he has achieved a greater combination of strength, flexibility, quickness and stamina than golf has ever seen in one player.
From the past, only Player and Norman can compare. Player, as noted above, also had plenty of Heart, but in terms of Hands—pure strength and talent—Tiger started with more than Gary ever developed. As for Norman, his lengthy record of missed opportunities betrays a fatal flaw or two in his Head and Heart.
Today, a group of young pros led by Adam Scott and Aaron Baddeley spend almost as much time in the gym as Tiger—almost—but becoming stronger and limber will take them only so far. They will need to develop the other three Hs as well if they hope to challenge Tiger.
Simply put, Tiger has Player’s Health, Seve’s Hands, Hogan’s Heart, and Nicklaus’ Head. That’s why he’s the best ever.