Tiger and Nicklaus: each man the other's measure

Even now, on the eve of the British Open at St. Andrews, people will say that Tiger Woods is brilliant, charismatic, revolutionary, but, dude, you can't equal Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 Majors.

Woods, with nine Majors, will not argue. He's not on this planet for that. No, he's here to exceed it.

Woods is not your everyday athlete because he is not the owner of your everyday sporting mind. He operates on a frequency we cannot tune into, he is driven by forces beyond our comprehension.

Years ago a friend claimed that a young Sachin Tendulkar took too many risks while batting. I countered that our concept of risk and Tendulkar's would never meet, that it was absurd to impose our ordinary limitations on an extraordinary man. For us it might appear risky to pull a seemingly reasonable ball for six; for Tendulkar it was merely an appropriate response.

In a similar way, 18 Majors for us, for golfers, for even great golfers, is inconceivable, sheer fantasy, especially in a more competitive era. For Woods, it was his only goal.

Most men bow to the words "you can't". Woods does not, he has made a living mocking them.

As a young black man he was told, you can't play at some clubs because of your colour. He was told you can't drive the ball so long all the time. He was told you can't win the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes and change your swing. He was told you can't dominate a sport like golf. He was told you can't win four Majors in a row. He was told you can't change your swing again and still rule.

But we awake before dawn and stalk him through our television sets only because he didn't listen, because he knows history is not constructed by the timid.

Great pursuits

Sporting chases compel us, this hunting down of greatness, this desperate desire to dislodge other men from the pinnacle. Sampras chasing Emerson's 12 Grand Slam titles, Schumacher chasing Fangio's five titles, Tendulkar chasing Gavaskar's centuries record.

But Woods chasing Nicklaus has its special aura, for 18 Majors is so incredibly distant, so utterly absurd, so seemingly unreachable. No man has got closer than 11. Yet Woods, only 29 in a sport where the peak is supposed to be in the 30s, has made us rethink the idea of impossible.

Woods has done us one great service. If Nicklaus is the standard against which all careers, including Tiger's, are computed, then to measure and appreciate Nicklaus it is best we use Tiger.

For it is only when we look at Woods, and appreciate how majestic a figure he is in world sport, and how he has staggered us with his nerve and imagination, but then remember that he is still only halfway to where Nicklaus has gone, do we begin to understand the colossus Jack was.

Fittingly, perhaps only Nicklaus truly understands Woods. As the older man once said: "I always felt the same thing, if I was hitting the ball the way I wanted to hit it .. I always felt like everybody else was going to play for second. And I think Tiger feels the same way".

Nicklaus, 65, does not believe he can even compete any more, and so on golf's grandest stage this week its grandest man will bid farewell. It is permissible to weep. Woods will not because chasing history requires unimpeded vision.

He may not win this Open, but his peers will mostly not say so. After all, they know better than to tell Tiger Woods that you can't.

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