James Lawton: Why Tiger's aura still leaves every other sportsman in the shadows

Ali illuminated boxing, astonishingly, but he did not redefine it the way Woods has golf
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The Independent Online

Even with the sunshine on the magnolia and the pine, and Tiger Woods back in the mood to augment the astonishing proposition that a man who hits only a stationary ball and has yet to receive a left hook to his head may well be the greatest professional athlete who ever lived, there is, apparently, an argument that for once a morning stroll here doesn't take you automatically to the centre of the sports universe.

No doubt it would be smug beyond words to dismiss the possibility out of hand so soon after a tumultuous Grand National produced the longest shot winner since Foinavon, Andrew Murray put more flesh on the bones of his young but promising legend, Sir Alex Ferguson unearthed a 17-year-old Italian assassin to shoot Manchester United back on to redemption road, and the Jenson Button-Ross Brawn comeback continues at a pace threatening to prove only marginally less sensational than would be the reincarnation of Juan Manuel Fangio.

There is also the small matter of the Champions League as a backcloth to the currently sensational work of such as Fernando Torres and Lionel Messi.

Yet here, of all places, the point has to be remade all over again. This is indeed a theatre of action which stands against all challenges and sports because none of its rivals have Woods. They do not have that invasion, year by year, of history which is made by someone who breaks all rules and creates his own standards and his own motivation.

Yes, it is true, this is where sport has the best chance this week of re-defining its hold on the imagination of all those who believe that, for all its other grace notes, it will always be essentially about winning.

It is because Woods, with a rebuilt knee, wealth beyond dreams, and facing some questions about the continuing force of his desire to match and then surpass Jack Nicklaus's record total of 18 majors, is in the rare situation of facing a challenge as strong from without as within his own fiercely competitive nature.

Padraig Harrington's drive to win his third straight major – and join Woods and Ben Hogan as the only men to have done it – brings an exquisite dimension to the Tiger's attempt to prove that his eight-month absence has caused not even the beginnings of a missed heartbeat. This is so because the ferociously committed Dubliner is in the process of demolishing the most frequently raised reservation against claims on behalf of Woods' unique status.

You've heard the argument often enough. Nicklaus earned the title of the greatest golfer because he had to fight off a whole posse of serious contenders, men like Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, while Woods has been able to squeeze the life out of his rivals.

Nicklaus was required to fight epic battles like the duel in the sun at Turnberry against Watson, and with never a guarantee of victory, while Woods, mostly, has simply been obliged to keep his rivals down to pygmy size. Consider all the talent, though, that will go to its rewards with the name Tiger scrawled upon its heart.

David Duval, in his dark shades resembling a refugee from the movie Natural Born Killers, seemed unstoppable. But he shrivelled along with the rest, and if Phil Mickelson has fought himself some way out of the shadows, the psychological gap between the men still resembles a chasm. Perhaps the most poignant witness of all is Big Easy Els. Ernie was talking recently of the rise of Rory McIlroy – and agreeing that the young Ulsterman is indeed the most beguiling of prospects.

Yet in some ways, said Els, McIlroy is the first serious contender to have benefited from, rather than been destroyed by, the example of the Tiger. "Rory has been inspired by Tiger, driven to try to emulate him. It was different for my generation. We were going along happily, picking up a major or two and believing that we might claim the future. But then Tiger came up behind us and mugged us. We couldn't resist his talent.

"Where that will leave Rory in the future, I don't know, but he certainly has the ability to win at the highest level. What it boils down to is whether he can live with the Tiger factor. Can anybody?"

The question will be most tantalising for Harrington and Mickelson this week because both are in that part of their careers when the matter of Tiger can no longer provoke any sign of a flinch. They cannot afford to be crushed by him because there is a huge body of evidence that one such demolition can carry lasting effect.

It may well be true of the still beautifully swinging Els, who suffered a terrible last day here in 2002 when the Tiger pushed for his third – and second successive – green jacket. Els went into Amen Corner a viable fighter but when he emerged he wore a hunted look. It is one that he has come to show with haunting regularity here.

Harrington, with his suggestion that he may well be able to think his way into a new competitive zone in the vicinity of Woods, cannot afford to linger over such a possibility. The Tiger's claim to a unique place in the annals of sport is, after all, not just to do with the weight of his own ability. It is also the conviction with which he asserts those gifts in moments of killing authority. He is a virtuoso, no doubt, but also a cannibal.

Colin Montgomerie, of course, learnt of this tendency to devour opponents at the start of the Tiger story in Augusta. He gave all due respect to the potential of the young man who had for so long carried such a burden of expectation, but pointed out that some things can only be learnt in the pain of defeat when you reach the highest level. Of course, Tiger was filled with promise but he was playing with the big boys now.

It is a part of golf history – which Monty has long learnt to place in perspective, perhaps in order to dilute the pain – that ensuing massacre when they were drawn together and the young gun marched on ahead, triumphant and irresistible, and his beaten opponent trudged behind him, no doubt ruing the moment he had placed Tiger Woods among the company of merely brilliant young golf prospects.

Some time later, the Tiger was asked if it had given him special satisfaction to have beaten, head-to-head, a man who had suggested he should not run ahead of himself, and that the triumph was merely in the margins of his record-shattering 12-stroke annexation of his first green jacket.

Woods pondered the question and then rolled the answer around his mouth as though it was a swig of vintage wine. Then he said, "Big time."

It is with such relish that Woods, stroke by stroke, win by win, has built the empire to which he returns with such an aura this week – and it is why some of us do indeed believe that no sportsman ever built such a huge weight of psychological advantage.

How, it is most frequently asked, can you compare a Tiger with a Muhammad Ali? More than anything, it is about the margins which he has created between himself and his nearest rivals. Ali had opponents who gave him special difficulties, Joe Frazier and Kenny Norton, and there was never a time when he dominated his sport as profoundly as Woods. He illuminated it, astonishingly, of course, and when he beat George Foreman he created a mystique that would never die. But that was not quite the same as redefining a sport, as making a whole generation of opponents wonder if there was any point in dreaming their best dreams.

This week, Harrington will be at his nerve ends to prove that such a time of dominance has passed – that it is no longer enough for the Tiger to appear on the first tee, and gaze inscrutably into the middle distance, for the will of his opponents to drain away.

It is a fine ambition and there are some who believe that it could be fulfilled. However, you have to think of the effect of such musings on the man moving ever closer to an untouchable mark in history. And who smacks his lips and murmurs about the "big-time" pleasure which comes when an opponent is destroyed. In a huge week of sport, there is still nothing quite so compelling.