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Air of dominance

Like Jordan, Tiger has found a way to rule his sport

Posted: Wednesday September 6, 2006 8:45AM; Updated: Monday September 11, 2006 9:57AM
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With wins in his last five tournaments, Tiger Woods has his sights set on Byron Nelson's record of 11 in a row.
With wins in his last five tournaments, Tiger Woods has his sights set on Byron Nelson's record of 11 in a row.

Now that Tiger Woods has won everything there is to win in golf except the shotgun scramble down at the local muni, there's hardly any point in comparing him to other golfers, past or present. Woods won his fifth straight tournament on Labor Day, a run that includes two majors -- the British Open and the PGA Championship. Think about that for a moment. If someone told you that any other player on the PGA Tour had won five straight tournaments, you would have checked their medication. With Tiger, you think, "Five straight? Sure, that seems entirely possible."

That's how far superior Woods is to everyone else who swings a club. He has so outclassed the rest of the field that we need some other basis of comparison for him, which is why it has become fashionable lately to consider Woods' place among the best of other sports. The current variation on that theme is to measure his dominance of the Tour against the way Michael Jordan ruled the NBA in the '90s. Who is or was the more powerful king, Tiger or MJ?

It's a close call. Tiger has won 12 major championships, and the way he's going, it seems likely that he'll pass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors by the time he's 35. Jordan had an equally remarkable run of championships -- when he left the Chicago Bulls and headed into what turned out to be a temporary retirement, the Bulls had won the NBA title in each of his last six full seasons.

Beyond the numbers, there is the way that both Woods and Jordan seemed to exert a psychological mastery over their opponents. You had the feeling that even the greatest NBA stars of Jordan's era -- Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing -- never really believed that they could beat him in the end, and they didn't. Woods has the same intimidation factor working in his favor. If Woods is leading in the final round, his competitors know they can't catch him. If he's trailing in the final round, the leaders are looking over their shoulders, waiting for him to make a charge.

It is almost unheard of at the professional level for other players to unanimously acknowledge the superiority of another athlete, but both Jordan and Woods have whipped their competitors so thoroughly and consistently that everyone else feels like the junior varsity. You get the sense that the players and teams they beat are as awestruck competing against Jordan and Woods as we are when we watch them.

The major difference between Woods and Jordan is in the nature of their sports. Woods, putting aside the caddies and coaches he's had throughout his career as relatively minor factors, is a solo entity. His success or failure rests on his shoulders alone. Jordan was part of a group effort, and with the exception of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, that group wasn't especially impressive. His ability to control games so consistently is even more remarkable considering that there were nine other players on the floor.

Jordan couldn't take every shot, make every decision, the way Tiger can. Regardless of the flaws of his teammates, Jordan managed to find a way to make sure his team came out on top in nearly every game that mattered. He won even though he had to rely on Bill Wennington to hit a jump shot now and then. Imagine Tiger having to find a way to win even though he had to let Stewart Cink hit some of his tee shots.

In the end, that's the factor that makes Jordan, at least from this vantage point, the more dominant athlete. Woods is a one-man show. Jordan was so in control of his sport that he seemed like a one-man show. Of course, maybe it's not fair to give Jordan the edge because of that, because it's a factor that's out of Tiger's control. The way Woods has been playing lately, it may be the only thing that's out of his control.