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July 26, 2000

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Here I come, ready or not!

Rohit Brijnath

Someone once wrote after a particularly compelling display by Michael Jordan, that "he painted his own masterpiece on basketball's Sistine Chapel".

Tiger Woods Well, to stretch the point, that's because Michelangelo was busy out on the golf course getting lessons in perfection from Tiger Woods.

Tsk, tsk, people tell me 'perfect' doesn't exist in sport. So then what we do with Tiger? Everyone's 'great' these days, everyone's a 'genius'. Boy scores a century, man scores a winning World Cup goal, girl hits a fine dive, and they're all 'great'.

Tiger's been 'great' ever since he gave the course pro at the Navy Golf Course a licking over nine holes. When he was three years old, that is.

Twenty one years later we need a new word. Fellows players might just settle for 'God'.

Golfers win four tournaments in a year, and they retire and commission statues of themselves. Tiger's won 16 of his last 29 tournaments without pausing to break a sweat.

Golfers win a Major (Masters, US Open, British Open, PGA Championships) by one stroke, a fluky shot that hits a seagull, rebounds off a spectator's leg, and bounces into the hole and they preen like emperors. Tiger wins the Masters 1997 by 12 shots, the US Open 2000 by 15 shots, the British Open 2000 by 8 shots and then says, "I'm working on my game".

His contemporaries are going to church and asking the Lord, "What sin did I commit to be born to play in the Tiger era?" This is the only time in sport when coming second is a big deal. No wonder Nick Faldo says, "There's going to be a new Tigerless tour. Where he doesn't play, everyone else goes".

Golfers said there would be only one Jack Nicklaus, that he was peerless, immaculate, that 18 majors was just not possible in today's world. Jack who? Now Mark Calcavecchia says, "If Jack was in his prime today, I don't think he could keep up with Tiger," and no one arrests him for being excitable.

Now then, do you get my point? Which is that Tiger has surpassed greatness as we know it, no such ordinary caliper measure is enough for him. No, he exists in the realm of men like Michael Jordan. He is redefining the way his sport is played.

Not bad for a fellow who's been a professional golfer for only four years.

As a sportswriter, I read on golf, I know most of the rules, I can recognise the players. I play too, very un-Tigerishly----the last time I swung a club I nearly hit my father with the ball, and he was standing behind me. He was less than impressed. Still, I stayed up four nights during last week's British Open (play ended each day at 4 a.m. Australia time) not because I worship the game. But because Tiger was playing.

I am not alone either. Since he started playing, an entire new breed of spectators follow golf. The predominantly white game, watched by starchy spectators who clapped in polite rhythmic unison, is unrecognisable. Bus drivers come and watch, and black men in dreadlocks, and young men who thought Golf had something to do with Volkswagen, and they hoot and shout "You the man", and you know, these clubs, some of which don't allow black members, they love it.

Tiger Woods Of course they do. Sports Illustrated once wrote that 150,000 extra spectators arrive each day when Tiger plays. Players can't complain either -- in 1996, the prize money on the PGA Tour was $69 million; today it's more than double, and it's all thank you, Tiger.

But more than that, they, me, watch because if sport is intrinsically an aesthetic experience, an artistic form, then he is it. When he gets on the tee and takes a few practice swings, it's like watching Mozart adjust his seat before his piano. Something magical is about to take place. The analogy fits too, for Tiger does not play golf. He composes it.

I feel awed by Tiger, captivated. I am even moved. And in 15 years of sportswriting, it is but the fourth time I have felt this. By John McEnroe, Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Jordan and this man ( I did not see Sir Don or Muhammad Ali or Pele in their prime). But we must scratch two men from this list. McEnroe did reinvent his sport----ever seen a man before or after serve parallel to the baseline or hit drop shots that collapsed like punctured balloons? ---but his genius was flawed. Tendulkar is magnificent too, but if I shrug off my bias and my Indianness, I must acknowledge he does not fit this company. Tendulkar's dominance has been sporadic, alone able to take his team far but not to the finish line.

Only Jordan did that, and it is remarkable, uncanny, that if we choose to study him and Tiger, to journey even briefly into the soul of the exceptional athlete, we find so many similarities between them. Perfection demands an elusive synchronicity between mind and body, between practicing and delivering, and they have it. If they lose, and they have, it is only because they are human.

Not if you ask their competition.

Said basketball coach Chuck Daly about Jordan years ago, "Cut him open and you won't find blood, muscle and sinew. You'll find nothing but wires and electrons and circuits". Said player Rocco Mediate about Tiger Woods this year, "He's not human. Cut him open and you'll find wires and levers, and a big-assed heart".

Heart. You know what that is, don't you? Tiger, seven shots down with seven holes to play in February this year and winning at Pebble Beach; Jordan, down with a virus and a temperature and huddled under blankets and close to not being able to walk, yet coming out to post the game's highest score and leads the Bulls to another victory one important night.

And knowing both of them, that yes we were born with certain genes, and gifted an athleticism, but to win, year after year, meant they had to refine their art, polish it, again and again, till they could see their own reflections of genius. Who is the last man to leave the Bulls practice every night? Jordan. Who is the last man to leave the practice tee after the third day of the British Open? Tiger.

The golfer hits 700 balls in one practice session at home, switching off his mobile for a week before the Masters one year, declining all business meetings, concentrating on adding something to his game. The basketball player every year brings something new to the court, perhaps a better left hand, maybe a new fade-away jumper. Always, they improve.

Michael Jordan To skill was added strength, to make the cocktail explosive. Jordan, tired of being elbowed and pushed around, hired a trainer to add 20 pounds of muscle, after first being convinced that it wouldn't diminish his athleticism. Tiger, in a sport that had never seen a gym room, bench-pressed 225 pounds, and did 300 pound squats, till suddenly everyone from David Duval to Tom Watson were running miles and buying weights and Faldo was saying, "He's throwing all these myths out of the window that you can't physically train for golf, you can't be strong or youre going to lose your touch.Id love to be 15 years old again".

And in all of this, there's something rather funny because, as a kid, Tiger says, "I want to be the Michael Jordan of golf". And it's only Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, who has both men in his camp, who sees it clearest first, when he says in 1996, "Everyone was looking for the next Michael Jordan and they were always looking on the basketball court. But he was walking down the fairway".

And now Tiger is Jordan, in many ways, but most of all this. The better Jordan played, the greater the expectations, and the greater the challenges the more he pushed himself. Till, wrote his biographer David Halberstam, "He was competing now against the most deadly opponent imaginable: himself".

And so it is with Tiger. He is so far ahead of the pack, he does not play them. He plays his own frailties.

In conclusion, I offer one last story. When Tiger signed with Nike, their first ad with him was wonderful. In it, Tiger says: "There are still courses in the the US I am not allowed to play because of the colour of my skin. I've heard I'm not ready for you".

Then he pauses and says, "Are you ready for me".

Do we have an option?

The Record Breaking Tiger- A Slide-show

Rohit Brijnath's name resonates with two classes of people -- fans of sport, and fans of good writing. We present, here, the first of a regular series on sports

Rohit Brijnath

Mail Rohit Brijnath

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