Woods ascends into pantheon of sporting gods

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The Independent Online

The coronation of Tiger Woods lacked just a few of the usual formalities.

The coronation of Tiger Woods lacked just a few of the usual formalities.

There were no annointing oils and when he reached for a club there was a strange absence of a fanfare of trumpets. Otherwise, the homage would have passed muster at Westminister Abbey. Tiger Woods did not merely complete the grand slam of major golf trophies on the Old Course yesterday. He joined, irreversibly, the pantheon of great sportsmen.

His hold over his nearest rival, and playing partner David Duval, in the end was so profound all but the flintiest hearted had to fight the urge to avert their eyes.

Duval took four shots to get out of a bunker on the 17th, and if the famous Road Hole has claimed so many victims down the years, few have been so softened up for destruction by the sheer weight of the talent they were required to oppose.

Duval will never forget the Road Hole - nor the day Tiger Woods took hold of golf and placed it in the palm of his own hand. No one, not even Jack Nicklaus, had walked along the peaks of golf so quickly, so youthfully, and with such assurance.

Three years ago he was the phenomenal, 21-year-old winner of the Masters. Yesterday he was the elder statesman of the game. That sounds preposterous, but since he curdled the mint juleps at Augusta National, where the role of young black men had always been to serve the drinks on the terrace, Woods has done so much more than establish a technical and psychological mastery over all rivals in his elected sport.

Like the teenaged Pele in the 1958 World Cup Final and the youthful Muhammad Ali scattering the demons that surrounded the ogre Sonny Liston, Woods has redefined the possibilities of the games the world plays. He is to golf now what Pele is to football, Ali to boxing, Pete Sampras to tennis and Lester Piggot to riding winners. He accumulates trophies as Don Bradman racked up centuries, with the additional grace of a Garfield Sobers.

Woods, the son of a tough American military man, happens to play golf, but beneath the shifting cloud patterns of the Scottish sky you had the sense that Woods, so supple and athletic and composed, could have picked his area of expertise almost at will.

Such is the impact of the greatest performers across the wide spectrum of sport. On the Old Course Woods' dominance was so explicit, so overwhelming some were inclined to applaud Duval, ranked No 2 in the world behind Woods and 18 months ago the hottest player in the game, simply for showing the nerve to present himself at the first tee. But for a little while Duval did much better than report for annihilation.

Behind his cutaway shades, the man from Florida carries the hint of an assassin on his more effective days, and the early indications were that this might just be one of them. While Woods, who started the day 16-under, picked up just one birdie over the first nine holes, Duval plundered four, closing to within three strokes on the seventh hole.

But if the pulse of Duval and all those who believe that Woods, who won the US PGA title last year and the US Open by the stunning margin of 15 strokes at Pebble Beach last month, is tearing the competitive heart out of the game, quickened a little at this development, it was an illusion of equality which will take much recreating now.

If you doubt this for a moment, you cannot have looked into the eyes of Duval as he walked off the last green. Nine holes earlier he had been within three strokes of Woods. He had been stalking Woods with a sharp instinct for the subtle shifts of confidence in a game which can move so violently, so quickly in another direction with just one change of momentum, but on the 10th hole Woods struck back with a birdie which brought him to a lead of four strokes.

With the final stretch of the Old Course to negotiate, in other hands such a lead would have carried no guarantees of glory - least of all a place in history. But for Woods it was the moment when he put an end to the last of the speculation. This was indeed the day when he would claim his extraordinary ascendency, and the end his winning margin - over South Africa's Ernie Els - was eight strokes. More crushingly, he had beaten Duval, the man whose hopes had risen so quickly in the bright light of mid-afternoon, by 12 shots. This is another extraordinary margin by which to win major golf tournaments.

His final score of 19-under was a record for a major tournament, beating the mark of 18 achieved by Nick Faldo here in 1990 and his own at Augusta in 1997. But we are not simply charting scores here, or recording the fact that Woods this day joined just four other players - Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Nicklaus - in the winning of all the major titles. We are talking no less than the annexation of a hugely taxing, psychologically ravaging sport by a young man of 24.

It is a story of stunning progress, of maturity that goes beyond the mechanics of playing a game, of handling pressure that comes with spiralling rewards which, with yesterday's prize of half a million pounds, has carried his winnings beyond $12m (£7.9m), more than that of any other golfer in history and still a fraction of his off-course earnings.

But the greening of Woods' golf talent, a process relentlessly worked by the American superagent Mark McCormack's International Management Group, long ago became a matter for the margins of Tiger Woods' experience. His father Earl said that his son would dominate the game when he was still a toddler, and we can only guess at the pressure such pronouncements brought.

No doubt they were prodigious, but as Tiger Woods walked in front of the St Andrews clubhouse carrying the Old Claret jug last night there was little room for fearful speculation about the accumulating demands on a man of still relatively tender years. He said that victory had brought an awesome feeling, a fulfilment of dreams. But then one man's dream can be another's nighmare and in the glory of Woods triumph there was the pain of David Duval.

He was asked questions about shot placement and club selection by some of his more technically minded compatriots and he answered them in a daze. He may well grow strong at this broken place, but then who can say how Duval, or any of his colleagues, will respond to a passage of golf so dominating no one at the Old Course, which just happens to be the home of the game, could remember the like?

There will no doubt be some period of shock that one man, one young man, could strike so far beyond all his rivals. Jack Nicklaus, who left the stage so poignantly at the weekend, says that it a cyclical thing, that soon enough someone will come to challenge the new king of golf. Maybe Nicklaus is right, but you couldn't find too many backers at St Andrews last night.

There is a new king of golf and his reign stretches out beyond forseeable limit.