April 9, 2001

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To the limits and beyond

Rohit Brijnath

He challenges us all, this slim hipped, wide shouldered black man with the white smile, with a game all brute like a lumberjack one shot, and as soft as a ballerina's footsteps the next, bringing almost a calliper measure's exactness to a game that swears such preciseness does not exist.

He challenges not just the men on the course, but us too, the watchers and the writers. He asks with his play, how good am I, and every answer we give he makes seem inadequate.

We have showered him with adjectives, we have called him 'great' and 'genius', we have called on poets and composers to draw parallels (Michelangelo on a golf course, with a club as a brush), we have sat at our computers and attempted to sketch him in lyrical prose, and we think we have captured him finally, when he goes further, evokes more wonder, and our vocabulary struggles.

We have caught him on videotape, on different continents, with the wind in his face and some days the sun, on courses that flow and undulate, where a surprise lurks every dog-leg, a puzzle every green, and he has answered every question, and we think yes, now we've got him, we've discovered the essential Tiger, identified his genius, till he brings a new shot, a better game, and commentators stutter and cameramen stand awed and there's never enough film.

We have walked with him down fairways from our living rooms, and we have marvelled at his ambition, and spoken authoritatively about golf with a whisky glass in hand, and decided in our infallible wisdom what can be done and what cannot, till he redraws the boundaries of sporting possibility and we reluctantly accept that what we cannot even dare to dream, he actually does.

Tiger WoodsTiger Woods did not just hold off Phil Mickleson and David Duval at the Masters. He was embarrassing us as well.

We thought we had seen it all in sport, till he came down the 18th fairway in his red shirt and dark pants and finally doffed his cap, if only it was to cover his face and obscure his tears.

Now, what?

Now, there is nothing remaining to be said. There are no words left to be used.

He has left us speechless, he has defeated our imaginations (four majors in a row? Impossible, unthinkable, absurd... Christ, he's done it), he has teased us into constructing fiction (a slump? A SLUMP!!!), he has made the sacrilegious (better than Nicklaus!!!) commonplace.

He has cast aside the past (Hogan, Sarazen, Hagen, Jones, Player, Palmer) and overcome the present (Lehman, Duval, Mickleson, Els, Singh), and, though he hasn't said it we might as well, he owns the future.

He has such a mockery for records, it is like he plays darts at the history books, deciding on a whim what mark he will try to break. Oh, what shall we do this week? Win the Masters, why not. What score? Ah, I own all the winning margin records at the Majors anyway, so let's plod. His words. He said he was "plodding" through the third round. For a 68!!

He has made us look foolish as we chatter on about the Grand Slam as if it were the Holy Grail (it was a 1960s invention by Arnold Palmer and a journalist for Godsakes, and is hardly written in stone), and Tiger must be thinking, a century and more gone by, and no one's won these four in a row ever.

Bobby Jones did win four; but not these four.

And he did it all, with such finesse, such coolness of character (tied 15th after the first round, writers sweated, he said don't panic), as if he were filming the sequel to The Legend of Bagger Vance and Duval & Co were just film props (he writes such absurd scripts for himself, his life makes movies seem timid).

He's travelled so far and reached so high that you think there is only way left, and that's down. It makes perfect sense, but then nothing about him ever does, does it?

Of course, he will lose, if not at the US Open, then the British Open, or the PGA. If not this year, then the next. But we will need to go two years, maybe three, without him winning a major before we can suggests words like "slump" and "decline". He has checked our audacity.

It promises to be a long wait.

But there is a wonderful irony to this week, and this incredible man. It is that in his very reminder that there is no limit to performance, no feat beyond conquer, no history beyond reach, he tells us one day there will be somebody else, someone who will travel further.

By his very example he teaches us that just like we never believed of Nicklaus, he too is just a comma to greatness, not its full stop. There will be, you see, a better golfer than Tiger Woods.

For now though it does not seem possible.

Slide show:

The Tiger is King

Rohit Brijnath

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