What makes Tiger Woods stand out as he does, above and beyond all the others who play professional golf, above and beyond all the athletes who play in all sports? Yes, of course his talent is tremendous. Woods is among a tiny group of athletes who, in history, have surpassed their sport rather than just defined it. Along with Babe Ruth in baseball, Jim Brown in football and Michael Jordan in basketball, Tiger Woods has done things nobody else who has ever played his sport has done as well. Like Ruth, Brown and Jordan, he is not just better than his competitors he is bigger than the game he plays.
I think there are two things about golf that help to give Tiger these otherworldly, superhuman attributes; two things about his sport that separates it from baseball, football or basketball; two things that make Tiger the greatest of them all, greater than The Babe, Jim Brown or Michael.
First, all sports are, of course, games that have evolved over time into organized activities. All sports have their own set of rules which serve as the measurements of the game. Tiger’s sport, however, is uniquely unaffected by officials. The golfer’s accomplishments – each and every stroke the golfer takes, every shot the golfer hits – are all to his or her credit, for better or worse, unhindered and unaided by the rulings of, or by interference from a referee, an umpire any other authority figure representing the rules of the game. In professional golf, of course there are officials, but the game, especially when played well, is most always played without ever requiring the appearance of one. Hit your drive in the fairway, or even nearby; then strike your second to the green, or even nearby; putt the ball into the hole; that’s it! The hole is complete and the sole influence upon the outcome is the unimpeded action of the player. In professional golf, the spirit of sportsmanship is so sincere, players enforce rule penalties upon themselves. This happens in every golf tournament, so often that it is not news. It is a rare instance when a rules official is required to make a decision and then, when it happens, there is never an argument from a player – NEVER! In the whole history of golf, there has never been a “winner” determined by a bad call, a missed call or a corrupt official. Try saying that for baseball, football or basketball.
In baseball, football and basketball, not a single second passes, not a single action of the game can take place without a ruling from an umpire, a referee, or some other duly authorized official. Without a determination of balls and strikes, fair and foul, safe or out, there would be no baseball. Football cannot exist without more officials than the average fan can either count or name – quick, in the NFL, what’s the difference between a referee and an umpire? What are the responsibilities of a linesman? Who keeps the official time of the game? How many officials does it take to work an NFL game? Basketball is even more complicated, more dependent upon officials and more influenced by them than either baseball or football. How many scandals have there been involving basketball officials affecting the outcome of games? The term “fix” is well known to every sports fan. The 1919 baseball World Series was “fixed.” Many, over the years, have questioned the “fixing” of both college and pro football games. Basketball seems to be continually fighting claims of corruption by officials in both college and pro ball.
While golf can be, and is regularly played at the professional level exclusively by the players, simply put, without the officials there would be no baseball, no football and no basketball.
Every statistical achievement and accomplishment by every player in those sports is the result of thousands and thousands of official rulings. Nothing in any of those sports officially happens without an official’s ruling. And the same is true for all the remaining, “minor” sports: hockey, tennis, racing, track & field, boxing… you name it. Golf stands alone.
Second, it is only in professional golf that you find a “winner” who has actually beaten every other competitor in the event. In a golf tournament, the winner’s score is matched against every other player in that tournament. You can’t win if you don’t beat ALL of them. Not so in baseball, football and basketball. In those sports all teams do not play all other teams in an equal number of contests, or at all in some schedules. And, in their playoff systems, baseball, football and basketball Champions are selected by having some teams play some other teams, crowning the team that wins all its series. But that team has only played a few of the other teams in the playoffs and even fewer in the regular season. In all three “major sports,” the Champion hasn’t played against many of the teams in their own league - at all, ever - in the course of the entire season; yet they are proclaimed that league’s Champion team. In golf, every week the winner actually defeats every other player in the tournament.
When we view Tiger Woods we see what a “winner” is supposed to be. His victories are not tainted by an umpire’s wide strike zone, a ref who overlooks holding by the offensive line on every snap from center or a basketball official who lets a superstar get away with infractions that would be immediately called on another player.
When America watched the US Open, we saw golfers play the course, and when the tournament was over – when all players had completed four rounds of golf – and two players were tied with the lowest score, we saw those two play each other for nineteen holes before Tiger Woods emerged the US Open Champion. When it was all over, no official could be said to have played a role in the final result.
What sets Tiger apart? He’s earned it. He’s never taken a called strike. He’s never been ruled offside. He’s never had a cheap foul called against him or received the benefit of a free throw he didn’t deserve. He just tees it up; hits it until it falls into the cup; and counts the strokes.