James Lawton: Why Tiger is the greatest of all time, above Ali, Owens, Pele or Nicklaus

You have to think Tiger will be equal to anything put before him

Some will say that the proposition is outrageous, others that it is an irrefutable reality of the sporting ages. Here, the debate is just about over. Yes, surely it is true: at the age of 30, Tiger Woods has proved himself the greatest competitor the games-playing world has ever seen.

Of course the assertion can be assailed by doubts and caveats in the aftermath of Tiger's third Open and 11th major title - three more than Jack Nicklaus at the same age. Yes, it is true, nobody ever tried to tear off his head, as so many did when fighting Muhammad Ali. His talent never brought an old empire to breaking point, as Sir Donald Bradman's did when England decided to bowl systematically at his body rather than the wickets. The Tiger never had to withstand mass assault, as the crippled Pele did in the 1966 World Cup. Nor has he ever had to stick old newspapers down his vest to soak up the sweat and protect his lungs in the fashion of the great Eddy Merckx after climbing to a peak in the Pyrenees before plunging into the valley below.

None of that is the Tiger's game but then if we search for the holder of the mythic title, if we ask ourselves who most completely burned off his opposition, who exerted such a psychological hold over his rivals that you could see their spirits dwindle the moment they were asked to play in his shadow, how can we look beyond the still young man who wept for his dead father on Sunday and at the same time gloried in all that he had been taught and all those points where he had been strengthened?

Saying this about the Tiger does not dishonour any of the great men of sport. It doesn't lessen the achievement of Jesse Owens leaving the squalid theories of Nazism in his wake beneath the gaze of Adolf Hitler in Berlin 70 years ago. It doesn't coarsen the sublime touch of a Rod Laver or Peter Sampras or Roger Federer. It doesn't quieten the stirring of memory when you think of Carl Lewis striding beyond the homophobic rednecks of his own country at the Los Angeles Olympics. All it really says, in an age when obscene amounts of money and celebrity are poured upon so many sportsmen who for one reason or another wilt under the resulting pressure, is that Tiger Woods has invaded history so completely, and with such superb bearing and fastidious regard and knowledge of his sport, that it is impossible to imagine he could, in any respect, improve upon his performance.

When the idea that Woods was indeed a unique golfer, and maybe sportsman, was first mooted, it received the most substantial support. Before that time, six years ago when the Tiger won a play-off for the USPGA title and his third successive major, Jack Nicklaus had been without a rival in golf and perhaps in the wider world of sport. When consulted, Nicklaus said: "Tiger is playing so well it is impossible to believe that he could be doing anything better. He has done everything right. He is in control of everything. Conditions change ... and I have to say that so far Tiger has yet to be seriously challenged. But then you see him play, you spend a little time in his company, and you have to think he will be equal to anything put before him. He is an amazing young man."

Six years on, Tiger is still running ahead of the Golden Bear. At 30, Nicklaus had eight major titles, three less than Woods now. In the subsequent 16 years he won 10 more. Given the extent of Woods' control at Hoylake the implication is unavoidable. Granted freedom from serious injury or ill health, the Tiger will not beat Nicklaus' record mark of 18 majors. He will engulf it.

Here in these islands the message left by Woods' triumphant visits could scarcely be more valuable. At its heart it is quite a simple one, though its implications must be vast for a nation which recently believed that in such as Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard they had football stars about to conquer the world rather than beginning the task of proving themselves.

The Tiger makes a bonfire of such ill-considered vanities. He says that success in sport is not a random visitor. It is something you fashion from the deepest and longest of commitments. You do not become - and stay - a world-beater on the light airs of fleeting talent. You do it in a gale of conviction that refuses to blow itself out.

Consider the factors that Woods has dealt with in his pursuit of unprecedented success. When he became a pro he had a $40m sponsorship which made him secure for life. In his first year he won the Masters by the devastating margin of 12 strokes. It was said that he had changed the nature of golf.

Certainly he had smashed through one of its sturdiest barriers when he became the first American major golf winner of colour. It provoked the most bitter of bar-room jokes, one that went like this: What were you looking at 40 years ago when a bunch of white men were chasing a single black? The Ku Klux Klan. What are you looking at today? A major golf tournament." The regard with which the Tiger was plainly held in the galleries of Hoylake - which were clearly filled by many for whom a day at their local golf club would be a journey to another planet - was a more innocent tribute to the achievements of the young man of stunning concentration.

It brought to mind some shocking British reaction to the Tiger's brilliant annexation of the 2000 Open at St Andrews. A BBC radio programme asked the fatuous question: Is Tiger Woods boring? Is he too good, is he making golf tedious? Lending weight to this theory was the editor of a national newspaper - not this one, if it needs to be said - who offered the astonishing, ultimately depressing belief that Woods would never be a role model for young Englishmen with immigrant roots. He was too squeaky clean, too intent on what he was doing; no, someone much more attractive, someone they could relate to much more easily, would be Ian Wright, the Arsenal goalscorer with a disciplinary record from hell.

Now we can only tremble at any suggestion that this might be so. For a nation where any sporting success is treated as some amazing achievement which makes necessary a visit to Downing Street and the closing of the capital for normal affairs, the story of Woods is surely one of evangelical force. Woods wept at Hoylake, but who could not but compare his tears with those of the captain of the England football team, Beckham, at the end of their embarrassing failure to make any impact on the recent World Cup.

Woods wept at the end of a glorious triumph. He cried for a man he loved and respected and to whom he would always be grateful. He didn't cry for himself.

No one is saying Tiger Woods is a perfect human being. If you cut him, he bleeds, sometimes with venom and always with slow-running forgiveness. He is not a natural adventurer despite the underpinning of so many dazzling gifts. Like Nicklaus before him, he plays a percentage game, and never more strictly than in Hoylake. But we are not talking here about the sweetness of his nature, his affability or his willingness occasionally to take those risks which can bring a sudden, fine edge to our sporting entertainment. The subject is not any of that. It is the scale of his greatness as a sportsman. It is his ability to meet any challenge and control events. It is his capacity to produce his best under pressure, to take the wounds of defeat, and then grow stronger, more determined to win.

In that last vast area Woods is the nonpareil. He claims it as the ground he has made his own over the years. No one has done this more relentlessly. It has made him the champion of champions and it is why, whenever he visits, there is a charge in the air.

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