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O’Connell: Tiger Woods Is The Greatest Of The Greatest Of All-Time

Tiger Woods of the United States reacts after being awarded the Green Jacket during the Green Jacket Ceremony after winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The question to ask yourself after this weekend is not whether or not Eldrick “Tiger” Woods is the just greatest golfer of all time. Rather – after watching him officially complete his comeback with a fifteenth major championship and a fifth at Augusta- the question is, is he more than that?

Is Tiger Woods the GOTGOAT? The Greatest Of The Greatest Of All Time?

Getting to the top in any sport is obviously an incredible accomplishment. Staying there for any length of time is of course another step up the ladder that even fewer attain. When we start to talk about the kind of champs who have won multiple titles over multiple years, the list gets pretty small.

You start getting to the household names, like Kareem, Floyd Mayweather, Martina Navratilova, Joe Dimaggio and maybe John Elway. Keep climbing the ladder and the air gets thinner. Now we’re in the place where winning multiple championships isn’t enough. To get this high-up, you have to be the kind of champion that changes things. Maybe once in a generation we get the incomparable sort that alters the way we talk about a game.

These rare persons change the way we discuss what it means to be great in each respective sport. They change the way corporations market their products and how networks broadcast their coverage. Industry-altering talents like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Muhammed Ali and Tom Brady.

These freaks of nature look down from the Mount Olympus of sport, immortalized by not only their achievements, but by the way they captivate us in their quest.  We obsess over their origins, the anecdotal stories of the milestones that made them who they are, and the intangibles that separate them from even the other greats in their field. This handful of demigods move us and our culture in ways almost impossible to measure. We want to know everything about them, even as we realize it’s impossible to truly understand them.

Tiger Has Own Unique Greatness

But here’s the thing… I can’t think of a single one of these extraordinary achievers who have done what we just watched Tiger Woods do. For the third time – and entering his third decade in the center of the golf world – Tiger has re-written the book.

As I try to put his return to the top of the sport into words, I realize there is simply no way to overstate the significance of what this man has done. When he burst onto the scene he broke the mold. He stayed at the forefront of golf, celebrity, and riches for so long that he eventually became the mold.

The paradigm that every other golfer was measured against, certainly. But also the high-water mark for athletes worldwide, and for the brands that they hoped to build.  A mixed-race, fist pumping, red-clad intimidator who became an icon, a force of nature, a god. The PGA, Nike, ESPN, and who-knows-how-many other entities grew fat wallowing in the wash of Tiger’s greatness.

Then he fell. His marriage collapsed publicly, his vices and demons were rooted out and exposed, and the same world that worshiped him reveled in the voyeuristic glee of watching an institution burn. The sport, and the networks that covered it continued to suckle at the teat of his fame, even as the milk soured. The cult of Tiger Woods certainly did not disband, it simply shifted.

Attention centered on his burdens instead of his triumphs. We tallied how many sponsors he lost instead of how many tournaments he won. The same networks and entities that he had carried to prominence stood by and warmed themselves in the flames as his life and career became a dumpster bonfire for all to see. Everybody still wanted a piece of Tiger, but it seemed like nobody cared how much damage was caused when that piece was torn off.

I was late to the Tiger party, and am more than a little ashamed to admit that the tabloid age of his career is probably where I finally started to understand his true impact. Bathing in the blood of Tiger’s downfall never made much sense to me, and never will. However, it did help me understand the magnitude of his contributions to a game that otherwise would simply have stayed off the radar for me and for so many.

The Greatest Of The Greatest

And this is where Tiger stands alone. This is what makes him a Singularity in the sports universe. He built a kingdom like we have never seen, saw it fall into ruin, and then he built it back. Let’s not fail to appreciate that he even bothered to try. Weeks of public shaming, months of naysayers, years of doubters and talking heads (myself included) saying that he would never be “Tiger” again.

So few would have even bothered to try. I truly don’t understand where Tiger himself found that motivation. He certainly didn’t need the money. Even after a reported hundred-million-dollar divorce settlement, he could have retreated to an island paradise, or yacht, or a secluded estate literally anywhere in the world until we all stopped obsessing over him. Instead, he kept plugging away. After injuries, surgeries, controversies, betrayals, setbacks, swing malfunctions, and countless other difficulties that we will likely never hear about, Tiger Woods made it back to the top. Tiger’s redemption story is not a sitcom either. It’s a Game of Thrones-scale epic that took years to complete.

2019 Masters Erase Past?

I don’t think Tiger winning the 2019 Masters should erase his mistakes. (we probably should question whether those mistakes were any of our business in the first place, though). We shouldn’t disregard the lessons learned from observing his slide from acclaimed hero to Perkin’s-joke-punchline. We certainly shouldn’t assume that Tiger’s success on the golf course makes him any less flawed of a human.

But we should acknowledge what we just watched. A feat of sports heroics unlike any we have ever seen. Mike Tyson captivated us much like Tiger did, and was similarly disgraced (deservedly, for a despicable and violent crime, it is important to note). He attempted a comeback, much like Tiger did, and even won some fights. But never held a meaningful title again, and never beat a worthy opponent again.

In fact, when the lights shined brightest on his comeback, he only created more trouble, biting Evander Holyfield’s ear off and threatening Lennox Lewis’ children. Tyson has since experienced a redemptive renaissance of his own, but not because he recaptured greatness in the ring. Not because he proved once-again to be the best in the world like Tiger did at the Masters. You could say that Lance Armstrong was the “Tiger Woods” of cycling. He won at an unprecedented clip, he made money nobody ever had before him, he made us care about the sport, if only for a while. When he fell, he fell hard, like Tiger, but he never came back. Sure, it’s a different sport, and age is much for an obstacle than in golf, but Lance rode the wave of controversy, sat down with Oprah, and then disappeared.

Maybe Tiger couldn’t do that, maybe being irrelevant would be worse for him than being constantly shamed, doubted, and bashed. Whatever it was that motivated him to become the Tiger Woods that the world initially fell in love with once again it is safe to say that he is the only golfer to have it. It’s not much of a leap to say that he is the only athlete who has it. I am convinced that the competitive “it” factor that Tiger Woods has is unique to him. The thing that allowed him to stay focused on his goal, and achieve it – despite everything – at age forty-three is freakish.

Whether the thing that drives Tiger is a product of his nature or the nurturing of his family, we will likely never know definitively. If you could distill it and bottle it, you’d be the richest human in history, because whatever it is, it is unstoppable. It is something that makes him fundamentally different from us and even his professional athlete peers in the same way that Shaq’s size made him different, or that Usain Bolt’s stride and speed make him different. It cannot be coached or supplemented or even medicated into a person. It is Tiger’s own mutant power, apparently impervious to time and trial.

Maybe if Jaromir Jagr somehow miraculously wins another Stanley Cup, or Tom Brady keeps collecting rings into his fifties we’ll be able to say that there is another champion on Tiger’s level. I don’t think any of us get to say whether or not Tiger Woods is truly redeemed as a person, but one thing is for sure, as a competitor, Tiger is back. He showed us that he is the GOTGOAT.

Greatest Of The Greatest Of All Time.