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

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.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
i100
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?