After holding off Tiger Woods to win the US Players Championship at Sawgrass on Monday morning, triumphant in his 42nd year, Hal Sutton made a statement about the world's leading golfer that was really a statement about the business of communication. "Tiger isn't bigger than the game," Sutton said. "He's human, not a god."
Deification isn't something Woods has sought or comfortably takes on board. But he is stuck with it, probably having more than any other athlete today the greatest attention of people who normally deem an interest in games evidence of arrested development.
As Alistair Cooke put it when commending the articulateness and style Henry Longhurst brought to the writing of golf, no tribute to an artist, writer, musician, golfer or character, come to that, can equal the simple remark that "there is no one like him". Presently, there is no one in golf like Woods, whose feats since turning professional four years ago have invited comparison with the greatest players in history and given rise to the widespread supposition that not even Jack Nicklaus's extraordinary record of 18 major championships will be safe from him. That Woods handles his fame so well, winning and losing with the grace Rudyard Kipling recommended, emotions now in check, indicates a level of maturity you seldom come across in youthful sports performers, especially when the subject of exaggerated assessment in newspapers and across the airwaves.
The extent of Woods's achievements at such an early age, his two major titles, the huge lead he has built up in the world rankings and a recent run of six consecutive US Tour victories, makes it difficult, of course, for sportswriters and commentators to keep things in discreet perspective. For example, in the third round last week, the former Ryder Cup player and Sky television on-course commentator Howard Clark felt that Woods was taking on an impossible shot when attempting to reach the green some 200 yards from a fairway trap. "I'll never use that word again," Clark said when admiring the execution.
One opinion put forward, as I recall it by another member of the Sky team, Bruce Critchley, was that Woods has become such an intimidating figure on the US Tour that no American could be fancied to prevent him winning at Sawgrass.
Sutton, who was spoken of as the natural successor to Nicklaus until his game fell apart in the 80s, kicked a hole in that assumption, his victory by one shot reminding Woods that the road is sure to get lonelier and tougher. Last week, Sutton. Before him Darren Clarke, who overcame Woods in the Anderson Consulting matchplay championship. Next week, who knows? The only certainty for Woods (three times a winner this year, with three second places from seven starts) is that someone from the host he has inspired will be coming at him.
Nobody in a right mind would quarrel with the view that Nicklaus endures as the greatest player golf has ever known. But a good, if unanswerable question is whether he would have achieved so much in today's circumstances. Engineering has helped to make drives of more than 300 yards commonplace and, together with technical advancements, reduced the terrors of course architecture.
Where Woods will eventually stand in all this remains to be seen. However, despite Sutton's dogged response at Sawgrass it has become pretty obvious that even the most driven of Woods's contemporaries acknowledge his superiority.
Before teeing off last week, Europe's leading player, Colin Montgomerie, said that when Woods establishes a lead the rest are playing for second place.
If this conveyed the impression of a convenient cop-out it would be instructive to know what lesser players than Montgomerie feel about their chances when Woods is in the field.
Because Augusta National is ideally suited to his game and he has won there, Woods will be a clear favourite to finish first in next week's Masters. There is no guarantee that things will work out to his satisfaction. But, by general consent, the only way of ensuring that Woods doesn't win is to put hands around his throat and keep pressing.Reuse content