Much has been made of Tiger Woods during his illustrious and colorful career. Recently, and justly, due to his transgressions, the chatter has been primarily negative with pundits questioning with some conviction whether he would ever return to his former self. Although Tiger was off to a quick start this year there was still a hint of doubt as to whether it would hold. Then came the Players and Tiger's fourth win of the season. The quickest in a season he has ever accomplished this feet. Very impressive. More impressive -- how Tiger didn't lose.
An athlete is judged on a number of qualifiers that transcend their respective sport. Raw talent and heart, among others, play a significant role in how the athlete is valued. The most polarizing of these qualifiers seems to be the "clutch gene" and its place among the others. Dan Marino is arguably the greatest quarterback ever yet he never won a Super Bowl. Does this mean we should value his career less? If you would answer yes what happened on the 17th this past Sunday should catapult Tiger into your discussion of who the greatest athlete ever might be. If you, like myself, value the clutch gene above all else in an athlete's repertoire, I would argue that Tiger just might be the best athlete ever.
Of course one could put up a fight for their respective candidate as there are plenty of athletes who deserve to be in the discussion. No matter whose hat you are throwing in the ring there is no one in the history of sports that makes his opponents worse simply through his presence. His clutch gene is so polished he seems to suck out any semblance of that same gene that may live inside his opponents.
What took place on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass on Sunday was cruelly poetic. Two resurging stars who splashed onto the PGA scene only a few years apart. Two men who have been quite public about their discontent for one another. Two players entering the final round tied after a round where controversy filled the air after one complained about the other's candor. The plot thicker than the air at dawn on Sawgrass. With only two holes remaining Sergio Garcia had an opportunity to take down the man in red as he and Tiger still sat atop the leader board. He was primed to right the wrong he claimed the day before and beat his nemesis.
He stood on the 17th tee and watched as Tiger made his par. Tiger had also just made birdie at 16 after nearly nailing a 62 foot bunker shot -- clutch. Sergio stepped up to his ball. What lied in front of him was a hole he had made birdie on earlier in the day while finishing his third round. However, what truly lied ahead obstructing his path was Tiger. That's when the Tiger effect kicked in and Sergio crumbled. Two water hazards later and an astonishing quadruple bogey and Sergio went from sharing the lead to being irrelevant. Another hazard on the 18th and a promising weekend turned into a catastrophe.
Before this tournament meltdown for the ages, Tiger and Sergio had played 19 rounds together on the PGA Tour. Sergio had broken 70 only three times. Tiger has dominated this pairing just like he dominates the other players who stand between him and victory on Sunday. When toe to toe with Tiger the best in the world transform into mere mortals as Tiger's clutch gene kicks in to high gear. He has now won 53 of the 57 tournaments where he is at least holding a share of the lead going into the final round. His career winning percentage is better than Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Sam Snead. Yet the microcosmic event that took place on the 17th is the most impressive aspect of his game.
All signs point to Tiger continuing his torrid pace. This could very well turn into his best year ever as a professional golfer. If so, at the end of his career it will be hard to argue that there has ever been someone who has swung a club better. What will be left to argue for eternity is where he ranks among the all time greats in sports. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy watching some of the greats. Their killer instinct is undoubted. Their ability to rise above when it matters most is superior. None of them can do what Tiger does. His presence is crushing. His Sunday stare is back. Golfers beware.