Tiger's devouring ambition threatens biggest beasts in the all-time jungle

That was was five years ago, when the 24-old Woods had won his fourth major and the huge question was posed: could it just be that he is not only the greatest golfer the world has ever seen, but also the most accomplished sportsman of all time?

Now there is reason to return to the debate. On Sunday, when he won his second Open title at St Andrews, and his 10th major, he not only moved four notches ahead of a Jack Nicklaus at the same age - judging by his most recent form it could easily be five with next month's USPGA tournament - he also went a long way to eliminating the last vestiges of serious competition. The leader board was thick with the game's most talented - and successful - players, but the Tiger devoured them all. If it is true, as some say, that St Andrews is the home of golf, Woods virtually put on his slippers and made himself a cup of tea.

He also issued a message which required no more than the most casual of de-coding. He implied with the subtlety of a battering ram that he was here for the long trip, a fact which intensified the debate about his place in the pantheon of all of sport.

Here, at least he does not suffer a shortfall of competition. Tennis, no doubt, offers some rivals: Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, and, with ever growing conviction, Roger Federer, would all have their supporters, and when someone looks for the ultimate sports figure he inevitably turns to Muhammad Ali. Cricket being only notionally a team sport, Sir Don Bradman is another serious contestant with his batting average of 99 and a talent so hard that the English establishment decided their best chance was to maim him.

But the most relevant question is simple enough: has anyone dominated his sport by such a margin as Woods, at such youth, and in a sport which by its very nature permits a gradual maturing of the finest talent? Nicklaus, who played his last competitive golf in a golden time warp at St Andrews last Friday, won two-thirds of his majors after his 30th birthday, and he would be the first to admit that he came very late to the idea that to be the world's greatest golfer over a long period demanded great attention to physical fitness. Before his last surge of victories, Nicklaus admitted that he had reached the point where simply walking around a tough golf course had become something of a challenge.

Back when he was on the first flood tide of success, Woods had a brief but significant conversation with the legendary Sam Snead. Slammin' Sam boasted to the prodigy: "When I was your age I thought nothing of drinking all night and taking the hangover on to the course." The Tiger frowned and said: "That doesn't work any more."

Already there have been scores of psychological studies on the matter of what makes the Tiger run so hard, but one of the soundest came from the distinguished American sports writer and author Tom Callahan, who wrote: "If you cross sportsmen like Woods you are dead. They are like DiMaggio [the great baseball slugger who won every battle he fought except the one that started when he walked down the aisle with Marilyn Monroe] in that way. Tiger is only self-centred and self-absorbed in the way of DiMaggio and the other greatest athletes have almost always been.

"If Woods has a little extra vinegar perhaps it's understandable. Maybe when one starts out as such a rank outsider in such an élitist environment some residue of vindictiveness is unavoidable at the top. But a touch of the mean streak - which is all he has - may be par for the course. And a killer competitor has to be tough. He has to be hard. He doesn't have to be rude. To be just a little rude, he has to be just a little mean. Tiger's that."

Callahan based his theory, topically enough, partly on Woods' reaction to his ransacking of Sunday's leading challenger, Colin Montgomerie, in the third round of the US Masters in 1997. Callahan wrote: "Knowing he was more experienced and emphatically liking his chances, Montgomerie committed the sin of honesty. In a pairing with Woods, he picked himself. Long after the tournament, Woods was asked if, considering Colin's lack of deference, he was especially glad to have had a piece of Monty. I expected him to reply, like Jack Nicklaus might, "Nah, not really." But Tiger leaned forward in his chair and said: "Big time."

When the possibility that Woods was potentially the greatest golfer, was put to Nicklaus, he said: "He is playing so well it is impossible to imagine he could be doing anything better. He has done everything right. He is control of everything... Conditions change, though, and I have to say that, so far, Tiger has not been seriously challenged.

"But then you see him play a little, spend some time in his company, and you have to believe he will be equal to anything that is put before him."

Since then, the Tiger has remade his swing, had knee surgery, got married, seen his leading challenger, David Duval, tumble down nearly 700 places in the world ranking list, laughed at rumours that he has a deadly gambling habit, smashed the last residues of racial prejudice and resentment to the far corners of the Georgia backwoods, and boiled his kettle, again, at St Andrews.

All in all, the instinct here is not to laugh at the idea that he may indeed prove himself the most masterful individual sportsman of all time. Far wiser, to keep one's counsel ... and the score.