Jordan. Ruth. Ali. Gretzky. These are the men who are uncontested at the top of their sports, with no arguments. It's been a rare feat in our generation to get to see two of them in their prime. And, as the general sentiment goes, there will never be another one of them. There will never be anyone who does more in baseball than Babe Ruth. And there will never be anyone in the NBA who can accomplish so much greatness over the course of an entire career than Michael Jordan.
So what's left? Football is a unique game, with this argument more clearly defined at each position (for instance, there's no question about Jerry Rice being the best wide receiver of all time), but to try and define one single face of the NFL, over its entire history, you're inviting a never-ending argument on multiple levels. Which is good for the game and good for conversations like this one. The same can be said in many other sports - which helps solidify the point that the class of four at the top of this page are in a class all by themselves, and to even breathe of someone joining them would mean we're into something rare. There have been others, in the States and around the world, who've been at the undisputed top of their sport, but failed to captivate us either by a dull personality (Pete Sampras) or lack of enthusiasm for the sport in general (Pele, in the US). The reason that Ali joins that list is not because he's solely the greatest boxer of all time - because that's a separate argument - but when you combine his personality, his voice, and his impact, no one comes close. That's why when I say "Ali", you know exactly who I'm talking about. So it's more than on-field performance - it's a presence. It requires more than just talent, it requires an x-factor.
This list should be impossible to join. Contenders and pretenders to the throne must first rise above all else in their own respective sport, something that's impossible in its own right - that's why "The Next Jordan" label has slipped on and off about a dozen players from Vince Carter to Dwayne Wade like a glass slipper right around midnight. Your appreciation for someone like Jordan or Gretzky (remember when hockey was fun? exactly.) only grows with time. These are the guys you'll tell your grandkids about, even if you never watched hockey.
We've been playing sports in the United States for 100+ years, and we're left with four names. No one can stand the scrutiny. It takes an incredible amount of everything, including luck and God, to put you even near this company. Will we ever, in our entire lifetimes, see anyone else to join this company?
Right now he's finishing his third round at the British Open, and he's in the lead. If he wins - and he's never lost a major while leading after 36 holes and 54 holes - it'll be his 11th major since winning the Masters in 1997. No active player on the PGA Tour has more than 6, and that's Nick Faldo who's quite a bit older than the 31 year old Tiger.
Tiger's accomplishments in 2000-2001 - when he won the "Tiger Slam" by holding all four majors at one time after winning the Masters in 01 - was so dominant it wasn't even fun to watch. It would be the equivalent of Jordan and the Bulls winning every game in the NBA Finals by 30 points.
There's absolutely no dispute that Woods is the best player of his generation. The all-time golf question seems to only be a matter of time, as he closes in on Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors.
But just being the greatest golfer of all time wouldn't put one in such rare company. And it's not just the dominance with which he's done it at times - though more of the down to the wire, holing a putt on 18 to win by one matches would only help his reputation and lore - it's what he's done to the sport of golf.
His late father, when Tiger turned pro, said that he could reach more people than Jesus Christ. While we're not advocating anything resembling that statement here, his multi-racial background makes him appealing to all (that's why the blacks take him with the first pick of the racial draft).
Consider this: if Tiger Woods died tonight, how many people would instantly stop caring about golf?
Woods brought golf to the masses, and made it more exciting to those who were already playing it. No one has done more for an individual sport in the United States than Tiger Woods. And not just in the US - the way Gretzky brought hockey to the Western United States when he signed with the LA Kings, Woods took golf to every place on the planet where there's enough landscape for 18 holes. He, and he alone, made golf popular, fun, exciting. He is the only reason many people will turn on their TV to the British Open this weekend, even if it's just tomorrow morning to see the end. No one else can say that.
The dominance he plays with puts "rivals" at his feet. This is a similar story with Michael Jordan, who came into the NBA at the prime of Bird and Magic, and hit his stride just as Bird's back had betrayed him and Magic announced he had HIV. And - all apologies to the collective unit of the Detroit Pistons in 1989-1990 - there was no one who could stop Jordan after that. Who were the contemporaries? Clyde Drexler? Penny Hardaway? Karl Malone? You can make a solid argument that the second best player in the NBA during the Jordan years was Scottie Pippen based solely on how much better he was because he played with Jordan.
Anyone who gets the label of being "the one" to rival Tiger fades fast. David Duval is a shell of the man he once was, and don't think some percentage of that wasn't trying to be Tiger. Vijay Singh isn't consistent enough. And the crowd favorite, Phil Mickelson, is yet to prove that he can consistently beat Tiger by any stretch of the imagination. The one who's gotten the most attention since staring down the fairway at Woods at the 99 PGA is Sergio Garcia, who would be an exciting rival (and shot a course record 65 today and may play with Tiger tomorrow, the ultimate death sentence in golf) - El Nino has never won a major.
There is no one else.
Part of the beast is marketing. Both Jordan and Tiger can thank Nike for helping them along. Both have had commercials that live in our collective memory and become part of our vocabulary, whether it's "It must be the shoes" or "I am Tiger Woods." Tiger followed Jordan's example with endorsements as well - instead of choosing every product that comes along to endorse, Woods is very selective, having deals with EA Sports, Nike, Buick, and American Express. Those four alone will pay the bills, trust me, if his multimillion dollar earnings won't. By the time he retires, Tiger could be one of the richest men on the planet, and the wealthiest athlete ever.
Some people don't like him, either because he is so dominant, or because of the way he comes across - he leads the tour in the F-word, and he's always on - a reporter yesterday asked him if the tournament was over, and Tiger said "No, because I'm not holding the jug." Rick Reilly's article in Sports Illustrated this week discusses part of this phenomenon, the differences between Woods and Mickelson and their fan bases. And Phil is a likeable guy.
But Tiger is a killer. And I love that. He's stone cold and he drops the language and the stare because he wants to win. And while I was happy for Phil when he won his major(s), and I'd love for him to emerge as a true rival for Tiger and go wire-to-wire with him - if it comes down to it on 18, I still want Tiger to win. Because you have to respect something this great.
Even Jordan had a period of his career like this, when The Jordan Rules was released and people found out that MJ wasn't everybody's best friend, wasn't comical like Shaq or always smiling for the cameras like Magic. But Jordan was lethal and there was no stopping him. Both Tiger and Jordan do limited interviews, stay far away from politics, and focus on their game alone. Where Ali made a name for himself by being controversial, Tiger and MJ have kept theirs by staying far away from it.
Is Tiger worthy of joining this company? Well, not yet, but he will be - and that's why it's both exciting and historic to watch him now, while he's doing it. They show and speak of things like The Rumble in the Jungle all the time - if I was alive then and watching it, I'd be telling people that I saw that fight everytime it was brought up. Clips that are commonplace now of Jordan - the shot on Ehlo, the dunk contest with 'Nique (the only place Jordan had a true rival), the drive in the lane switching hands against the Lakers in the Finals, the six first half 3's against Portland the next year, coming back and dropping 55 on the Knicks, stabbing the collective heart of Utah with his final touch in the last shot of the 98 Finals - I remember all of those, and I remember them fondly, even if I was/am a Celtic fan, and even if I will still argue the finer points of Bird vs. Jordan even though I really know the answer to that debate.
So I'm watching Tiger now, finish out 18 on the third round to play for the jug tomorrow. And it's all a living story, one that I'll want to tell my grandkids even if I stop playing golf one day. That's why you watch Tiger now. That's why he will be among those four as the singular athletes in history.
And if this journey continues, the question will become not if he belongs, but if he reigns higher than all of them, as the greatest sports figure of all time. Wait. See. Watch. Enjoy.