Woods' greatness on display yet again at Ryder Cup

Updated: September 19, 2006, 5:46 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

STRAFFAN, Ireland -- "Tiger Woods is the greatest individual athlete of our time."

That's what I wrote Sunday, Aug. 20, the day Woods vaporized the PGA Championship field, went Tom Brady's jersey number on the majors, and then celebrated his third consecutive victory and 51st Tour win by … flying to Houston to pick up his new labradoodle puppy, Yogi! (Memo to Tiger: please tell me the labradoodle and dog name were Elin's idea.)

Tiger Woods
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesTip of the cap: Woods is second to Sam Snead in career wins.
Since then, Woods has stretched his PGA Tour win streak to five and put a choke chain around the money list lead. If he doesn't win the Tour's Player of the Year award it will only be because Pac-10 replay officials oversaw the balloting.

Now Woods is here at The K Club, site of the 2006 Ryder Cup. Not much is expected of him. Just carry the USA team against the favored Euros. You know, the usual.

Win or lose this week, Woods' golf legacy is as secure as a safety deposit box. Jack Nicklaus loyalists will argue the Golden Bear is the greatest golfer of all time until someone breaks his record of 18 major victories. Fair enough, except deep down I'm not sure even Nicklaus himself believes that.

Woods is the best the game has ever seen. He's the best any game has seen. Nothing has happened since that August day at Medinah Country Club to change my mind. If anything, I feel even better about the first line of this column, especially after he won two more tournaments after the PGA Championship (no post-major letdown for Eldrick).

Of course, back in August it took about Reggie Bush's 40-yard dash time before the e-mails began pouring into my Outlook mailbox. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. Most of the e-mailers wondered if my brain cells had been removed at birth. The angrier ones wanted to know if I'd like to chug some antifreeze, then chase it down with a shot of battery acid.

Sports fans, sports talk show hosts and sports columnists simply can't wrap their arms around the idea that a golfer -- and they say it in such a dismissive way -- can be the greatest individual athlete of our time. In fact, many of them barely consider Woods an athlete at all.

He doesn't run, jump, sweat, or even carry his own bag. That's the gist of the non-athlete argument. Of course, neither did John Kruk, but nobody seemed to mind. And don't even get me started about designated hitters.

Woods' swing speed is about 130 miles per hour. Yours isn't. Put a hockey stick in his hands and you wouldn't say a peep. But a golf club, and he's a non-athlete, eh?

You don't hit a golf ball as long and straight as Woods, who's all of 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, without being a world-class athlete. His ability to swing that hard and hit a ball that pure is as Angelina Jolie-gorgeous as Ryan Howard doing the same thing with a baseball.

On GolfDigest.com is an e-mail Q&A with Woods. A 14-year-old golfer asked Woods if he was ridiculed as a young golfer.

"Oh, yeah," wrote Woods. "They'd say, 'Golf is a wussy sport … non-athletic … takes no skill to play. The beauty of it is that I knew how difficult golf was."

It is difficult, exasperatingly so. If it wasn't, Michael Jordan would be on the PGA Tour. I'm not saying Woods could ever play another professional sport, but I am saying I don't see one former NBA, MLB, NHL, etc., star on the PGA Tour. However, I do see them shooting 91s at the Lake Tahoe celebrity tournament every year.

No, Woods doesn't jump. Neither did Larry Bird. You could barely slip a piece of typing paper under Bird's Converses when his feet left the ground. Big deal.

And, no, Woods doesn't carry his own bag. This is an issue why? When Albert Pujols hits a home run, he doesn't lug his bat around the bases with him. Baseball's equivalent of a caddie -- the bat boy -- picks it up and places it back in a container in the dugout. Hmmm.

Anybody who thinks Woods isn't an athlete probably thinks Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't an athlete. After all, Junior just sits on his butt and people in fire suits hand him refreshments with a long pole. And then all he does is make a bunch of left turns, right?

Greatness isn't defined by how hard your sweat glands work, or whether you can run a 4.4 40. There are lots of bad football players who are fast and can soak a jersey. Greatness is about individual artistry, about separating yourself first from your peers, and then from everyone else in the sporting world.

Woods has done that. And he's done it in an individual sport that doesn't allow cheating or coaching during play. He's done it with 10-deep galleries that are close enough to tug at his shirt collar. And Woods doesn't have any teammates to bail him out when he's scuffling. There are no Tiger-aires.

What about Jim Thorpe, Dan Gable or Lance Armstrong? What about Roger Federer, Carl Lewis or Edwin Moses? Aren't they Woods' superior?

Sorry, but their level of individual dominance simply doesn't match what Woods has done, and will continue to do.

Woods is 30. You know why he's in such great shape? Weight lifting.

Lifting trophy, after trophy, after trophy.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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