Great, right on cue

Published 9:23 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not that he needed it, but Sunday evening, in prime time, Tiger Woods again proved why he is more than just a great golfer, he is a great athlete.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph headlined Woods’ win on Sunday by calling him the “world’s greatest sportsman.”

Sure, Woods’ physique resembles that of a pro centerfielder, safety or point guard, but it isn’t his physical gifts that put him into the all-everything Hall of Fame even as his career has 10-15 years or more to go. Everyone watching — devoted golfer, occasional duffer or just plain sports fan who couldn’t care less about golf other than Tiger — knew what was going to happen when Woods was stalking around the 18th green.


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Woods knew it, too. But, again, he just did it (no Nike endorsement intended).

All serious athletes at all levels know what needs to be done in a certain situation. When the pressure is on, though, it’s one thing to recall everything you’ve practiced and execute. Then it’s a higher level altogether to perform precisely, seemingly every time, when history’s on the line.

It wasn’t even that Woods put together a perfect golfing demonstration in winning the tournament, because he didn’t. He was five shots down heading into the final round. Even coming down the stretch Sunday, Woods missed routine iron shots, made five on a par five and bogeyed No. 17.

For a golf fan, the last year or so without Tiger has still been pretty good. The American team won the Ryder Cup in a fashion we Americans think our team should always win it. Padraig Harrington won the last two majors of 2008 with amazingly consistent golf on brutal courses.

With a week to go before the Masters, which will now be bigger than ever with Tiger’s comeback from surgery playing out exactly as Tiger himself would’ve charted it, Augusta will have the excitement of a sporting event rather than a golf tournament.

Sunday was the third time at the Arnold Palmer/Bay Hill tournament that Woods had made an 18th hole putt for a one-shot win. It was his sixth time winning this tournament overall.

Want to see why Woods is a great sportsman instead of just a great golfer? Watch a pro golf tournament on TV for a while one afternoon, maybe an hour or so. See the percentage of 15-30-foot putts that are made. It’s not very high, even for the best golfers in the world.

Even for Woods, it’s not very high taken as a total over a four-round tournament. It’s remarkably high compared to us hackers that go out and play something resembling golf, but compared to a free throw from a college or pro basketball player, or a 40-yard field goal from an NFL kicker, or converting a penalty kick in soccer or a penalty shot in hockey, making a 15-foot putt is a poor ratio.

But when the sports world is silently watching, Tiger Woods knows he’s going to make the putt and he does.

That’s what makes a great sportsman.