BREATHTAKING success, an odyssey almost too storied to be real, has accompanied Tiger Woods in his phenomenal stampede through the golf jungle. Is there any other avenue of sports in which a single individual has dominated the competition with a similar minimum of effort?
Yes. His name was Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1937 through 1948. Admittedly, there is little that's analagous between boxing and golf. One is all-out physical, while the other requires a more passive approach.
Louis, during his reign, was beating virtually every rival with varying styles who came before him. They were sluggers, stylists, crouchers and scared rabbits. Now, Woods is just as spectacular, shattering par on golf courses the way Louis used to do with methodical precision in the ring.
The mere mention of Louis' name, the same as it is now with Woods, often induced a case of near-paralyzing fright. Intimidation.
Coincidentally, a strong passion in Louis' life happened to be golf. He was a consistent player, scoring regularly in the mid- to high-70s. His weakness? He made the mistake of thinking he was better than what the scorecard told him.
So he often matched himself with golfers he believed he could handle and stacked sizable money on the outcome. Joe found out the hard way he couldn't beat them at their own game. But this didn't mean the champ was going to stop trying.
Louis lost a large fortune in golf. He wasn't a soft touch, but was extremely competitive and a pleasure to be with as we once found out during an afternoon at Pine Ridge Golf Course in his company and that of Pete Brown, a touring pro, and Baltimore businessman Willie Adams, his loyal friend.
Louis was to boxing what Woods today is to golf. There was no challenger he wouldn't meet, and some of them, when it came time to leave the dressing room and enter the ring, were beset with a case of stage fright. Under the trembling circumstances, they sometimes had to be forced to keep the commitment (example: Johnny Paycheck, 1940).
Woods - forget the physical part - has created the same mental problems for his contemporaries in the PGA fraternity. They don't know what to expect, except to see Woods go past them. Playing against Woods causes the mind to create self-doubt and an inferiority complex of sizable proportions.
Louis enjoyed golf and worked hard to become a better player. As Woods has Butch Harmon as a teacher, Louis had not one but multiple swing coaches - including Clyde Martin, Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller and Ben Davis. They frequently traveled with Louis as his guests, Joe paying for more than the greens fees along the way.
So there is a definite correlation between Tiger Woods and Joe Louis in their respective sports. If you're searching for a comparison, this is one that fits. There was an enormous distance in ability between Louis and the boxing competition of his era. The same applies to Woods and the rest of the golf fields of today.
Woods psyches them out by merely being listed in the pairings. Then, with dispatch, he moves to the top of the leader board and goes home with the coveted first-place prize.
He continues to score a high percentage of knockouts, causing players to ponder their fate before taking the count. Relentless shot-making will do that. Even before they tee off, there's a realization that every other golfer is competing for runner-up money. His presence is that foreboding to the rest of the entrants.
Grant Waite of New Zealand, who has played all over the world, paid him the ultimate tribute. "He's an extraordinary player," Waite said, "who comes along once every generation or, in his case, maybe once in forever."
Woods' nine wins lead the PGA list this year. They are the most since Sam Snead in 1950, when Snead won 11 times. But to get there, Snead entered 25 tournaments and earned a total of $35,759. Woods, meanwhile, has made 17 appearances in 2000, scored those nine victories and put away purses that add up to $8,286,821.
He has won the national opens in three countries - Britain, the United States and Canada -duplicating the achievement of Lee Trevino in 1971.
Woods does more than show up in the winner's circle to take home another check, another trophy. He pounds the life out of par in the process - 12-under at the U.S. Open, 18-under at the PGA Championship, 19-under at the British Open, 21-under at Firestone and 22-under at the Canadian Open.
Woods, only 24, has done all this, along with being personally responsible for lifting TV golf ratings to record highs. There's more to come, providing he avoids physical problems.
As with Joe Louis, more than a generation before him, he's the undisputed heavyweight champion ... of the world of golf.