It was fitting that CBS followed up its broadcast of the PGA Championship yesterday with an airing of 60 Minutes that featured an interview (done by Ed Bradley’s earring) with Michael Jordan. On my sports Mount Rushmore, there are three athletes that have secured places so far: Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Babe Ruth. Tiger Woods, with winning his 12th major championship in Chicago’s backyard at Medinah, has all but clinched the fourth spot.
(On a related note, I’ve heard arguments that the great multi-sport athletes such as Jim Thorpe or Bo Jackson ought to be considered at the top of the list. Certainly, I believe the ability to play multiple sports at a high level is something few have ever been able to do. However, in my opinion, there’s nothing tougher than dominating and perfecting a single sport in the manner of Jordan or Woods. Besides, the greatest athletes could have excelled in any sport if they had wanted to. For example, Michael Jordan was the named top Babe Ruth League baseball player in the State of North Carolina before he decided to focus on basketball.)
For whatever reason, though, there’s been a bit of backlash over the past couple of years regarding Tiger. Phil Mickelson has turned into the “people’s champion” while Tiger has been somewhat put down as being robotic. It’s not a surprise that the public tries to knock down those that have achieved the highest levels of success realtively early in life – it happened to Ali with his refusal to serve in Vietnam and Jordan with his gambling habits – but it’s still disjarring to see such a disproportionate share of negativity toward Tiger Woods when he’s without question the top athlete of this generation.
Tiger doesn’t have the magnetic and quotable personality of, say, Charles Barkley or even Jordan, yet it’s not as if though he’s the ornery Barry Bonds, either. At the same time, Woods hasn’t had been involved any outside scandals in the tabloids. He had an incredibly close relationship with his late father and is just as close with his mother, all while being married to a Femme Bot of a wife. Tiger might have as much in terms of natural physical gifts as anyone that has ever played professional golf, but he also has shown that he works harder to perfect his game above and beyond his competitors.
Maybe it’s the appearance of perfection that eventually drives people away. Just as Arnold Palmer became the crowd favorite over the superior player of Jack Nicklaus, we might be seeing a repeat with Mickelson becoming the public’s choice over Tiger. Phil’s meltdown in the U.S. Open earlier this year almost made him more endearing, as if he’s someone that’s just as flawed as the rest of us.
One of my friends once told me that he enjoyed watching hockey over basketball because he believed hockey players were the types of guys he’d want to have some beers with. For me, it’s the complete opposite: I want to watch athletes that are anything but normal and down-to-earth. The pursuit of physical, mental, and practical perfection is what has always attracted me to sports and there are few things more thrilling than observing someone work toward that level. My favorite sports memories from my childhood pretty much all involve Michael Jordan willing himself and the Bulls to victory with strength, guile, and precision that no one else could match. Tiger is doing the same thing on the golf course right now. While I enjoy watching Phil Mickelson as much as anyone, if you asked me which athlete I’d pay money to watch over any other as of today, my choice is going to be Tiger Woods everytime.