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SI FOR KIDS
Did Tiger grow up too fast?
Posted: Wed April 8, 1998
Mike Tyson ... Jimmy Connors ... Tracy Austin ... Steve Cauthen ... Boris Becker ... Nadia Comaneci ... and Tiger Woods.
Do you see the pattern here? All these were wunderkind, champions in individual sport, who were not only amazing in their precocity, but so extraordinary that it seemed they had taken their whole sport to a new level. Surely, they would rule forever.
And yet: All these prodigies would come back to earth. Oh, they all had fine careers. But none of them were able to maintain that first promise of preeminence.
It seems, in fact, that while athletes develop to stardom at younger and younger ages, this early greatness does not prefigure any sustained superiority. It just means they arrived at the top earlier. In women's tennis, which has featured a cavalcade of superstars, ascension happens so rapidly now that Martina Hingis, at 17, is suddenly suspected of being on the cusp of over-the-hill.
Meanwhile, on the men's side, at the very moment when historians had begun to say that Pete Sampras could be the greatest player ever, he began to show the early signs of being burnt outjust short of setting the record for most Grand Slam singles titles.
Sampras was the youngest U.S. Open champion ever, at 19. Is it possible that these early demands suck out too much energy? Is it possible Sampras is past his prime at the advanced age of 26? Bill Tilden didn't even win a championship till he was 27.
And so now we come to Tiger Woodsand particularly like Tyson and Becker in their time, he possesses so much sheer physical power that it has seemed that he didn't just beat people, but he overwhelmed the entire sport. Only 51 weeks agoremember?it was just assumed that he would rule golf for the next 20 years. Woods was certainly going to win the 1997 Grand Slam, wasn't he?
Oh well. He didn't even finish in the top 10 in any Grand Slam event after the Masters. He was a bust in the Ryder Cup. And now cynics say that even if he wins the Masters again, it won't mean much because the course is made for him. And there's sniping that he spends more time working for his sponsors than on his short game. It's funny. It used to be booze and women that cut down success; now it's agents and exhibitions.
Of course, not even the most captious critics suggest that Woods is merely a comet who's flamed out. He remains, after all, No. 6 in the rankings, a favorite to win every tournament on the Tour, and he can still outdrive even Thor, the god of thunder. But it is apparent that we've finally grown leery of phenoms. Too many of them have promised much more in their youth than they've delivered in their maturity.
Tiger Woods is an extraordinary talent, and his victory in the Masters last year was not just a gem, but the Hope Diamond of golf. But it's a different world now. Kids grow up so fast. However, too often, in sport, anyway, they don't grow for long.
So this week, in Augusta, we start to learn anew whether Tiger Woods is truly a golfer for the ages or just a golfer for his years.
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