Posted: Monday September 11, 2006 12:06PM; Updated: Tuesday September 12, 2006 12:06PM
Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
I was eating breakfast in a restaurant outside of Los Angeles last week when I asked my companion the kind of question you'd hear on your average radio call-in show: Is Tiger Woods the most dominant athlete in the history of sports?
John Wooden thought for a moment, smiled softly and replied, "I would say Byron Nelson dominated the sport more in his era. Check the number of tournaments -- 11 in a row at one time, and I think a total of 18 that year. So I'd say in his particular era, Byron Nelson was the most dominant in his sport. Just like Sandy Koufax for two or three years had the most dominant statistics in his sport. And remember, Jesse Owens once broke four world records in one afternoon. That's rather amazing.
"I think Tiger could eventually be the most dominant over time," Wooden continued. "He's only 30, isn't he? He might not be in his prime yet. Then again, wasn't [Jack] Nicklaus second [in majors] 18 times? Let's see if Tiger at the end can match that total as well. I don't focus so much on majors. That's like saying someone isn't a good baseball player if he didn't win the World Series."
Wooden took another bite of his breakfast and finished his soliloquy. "My father always said, 'Never compare. It's not going to make you happy, because you always compare to someone who had more. You never compare yourself with someone who has less, and it's usually about material things.' What I do like about Tiger is his demeanor. He's handled everything so well, particularly after the death of his father. Demeanor is so important to me."
Wooden, of course, dominated his era like no other college basketball coach. His UCLA Bruins won 10 NCAA titles in a 12-year span. When he is at home in Encino, Calif., Wooden, a man of habits, can be found most mornings having breakfast at Vip's restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. When we walked into the place last week, the regulars all but called out "Norm!" -- which is fitting, because Wooden's son, Jim, refers to Vip's as "Cheers without beer." Wooden shook hands with the customers at the counter, left a dollar bill for the busboy who set our table and playfully chided the waitress for taking so long to reach his table. "Hello, honey, I didn't think you were getting back here," he said. Barely glancing at the menu he added, "You know mine."
Though Wooden will turn 97 next month, his mind remains plenty sharp. It's not shocking he would have such keen insights into my question about Tiger, but I was surprised to learn just how up-to-date he is on current events in sports, even though Wooden says he doesn't watch much TV and doesn't read as much as he used to. His answer far exceeded any that would come from your typical radio talk-show host. It demonstrated knowledge, a breadth of perspective and the wisdom of a man who always understood the difference between winning and success.
For example, when we talked about how UCLA's basketball team would fare this season in the wake of its run to last year's NCAA title game, Wooden said, "They could be as good a team [this season] and not do as well.... You can win when you're outscored. You can lose when you outscore someone. I must admit the alumni don't look at it that way, but I truly believe that."
Does that mean, I asked, you think there is such a thing as a moral victory? "Yes, I think there is -- in yourself, at least. Plenty will dispute that. I think Vijay Singh made a pretty good statement [after the final round of the Deutsche Bank Classic]. He said, I didn't lose the tournament, Tiger won it."