If you've ever wondered about the competitive fire of professional golfers, you can stop: They don't have any. "The best who ever played," Mark Calcavecchia said about Tiger Woods after the British Open. "There's no doubt that we're playing for second place," Thomas Bjorn said before the tournament was even over.
If the NHL had given that much respect to Gretzky, he'd still be scoring 90 goals a season. When Jack Nicklaus suggested that players were giving up too easy, it was considered the tour version of trash-talking.
Is Woods the best player ever? Probably. Could he beat Nicklaus in his prime? Maybe. But the straight-up comparison obscures a more interesting question. Nicklaus, it's fair to say, earned his Grand Slam during an age of golf champions. When he won his first U.S. Open in 1962, Arnold Palmer was in the middle of winning his seven majors. By the time Nicklaus had won all four majors in 1966, Gary Player had completed his own Grand Slam a year earlier. During the winning span of his career, from the early 1960s until the mid-1980s, he faced two other three-major winners, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.
Woods entered the tour in 1997, hardly a golden age for golf. No player won more than two majors during the '90s. Of the current field, only Nick Faldo has won more than three majors, and he hasn't won since Greg Norman's collapse at the 1996 Masters. There were three golfers of Woods' generation who were supposed to give him fits: Sergio Garcia, Justin Leonard, and David Duval. The first two have watched their games go south, and Duval, who's never won a major, might still be in that bunker on the 17th at St. Andrews if shame hadn't pulled him out.
So the question is, is it more impressive to be a champion in an age of champions, as Nicklaus did, or in an age of parity, as Woods has?
It's a question that's at the heart of just about every barroom sports debate (Maris vs. Ruth, Bradshaw vs. Montana, Jordan's Bulls vs. Magic's Lakers). Parity advocates would argue that a player has to be that much more motivated and more driven to compete without a clearly threatening opponent. They might also point out that Woods is demolishing not just other players but course records, as well. It's also true, of course, that today's players make their '60s counterparts look like weekend duffers by comparison. Thanks to technology, training, and, of course, the money, today's golfers are undoubtedly better as a group than at any time in history. They're just clumped around the middle. Nobody, until Woods, has been able to break free of the pack.
Age of Champions advocates would counter that golf is a psychological game and that playing with a big lead is considerably different from playing in a tight race. In other words, it's one thing to look up on Sunday morning and see you're paired with David Duval—"Hmm. Duval. Good player. No. 2. Never won a major"—and quite another to look up and say, "Oh my God. That's Arnold Effing Palmer." What matters is one player's relation to his nearest competitor, not to the collective strength of the field. Not surprisingly, Nicklaus sees it that way: "[Woods] has to have challengers for the whole thing to be right. It's a bad story if there aren't any challengers."
Woods is often credited with playing a devastating psychological game against the leaderboard, but he's a Saturday player, taking the lead in the third round, then hurling thunderbolts from higher ground. His worst single round in the majors was the fourth day of the 1999 PGA when Garcia charged within a stroke. Woods held him off with very mediocre par. Afterward, Garcia looked like a box of Wheaties. Woods looked like he'd swallowed the flagstick. Sideways.
Maybe the best argument against parity is the career of Pete Sampras. During Sampras' record-setting run at this year's Wimbledon, even John McEnroe called him "maybe the greatest ever." Why does the phrase sound so hollow when applied to Sampras? It's not his fault, of course, but of the three potential champions who played during Sampras' reign in the '90s, Courier flamed out, Agassi has had, to put it mildly, an erratic career, and Rafter is proving to be the '90s version of Roscoe Tanner. McEnroe himself won just over half the number of the majors Sampras has, but he played against Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and Ivan Lendl, none of whom seemed content to play for second place.
We still don't know what kind of competition Woods will face five or 10 years into his career. In lieu of any current threat, he seems content to play against the legend of Nicklaus. (Do we really need to hear the story about Woods' taping Nicklaus' records on his bedroom wall again?) The next decade will determine whether Woods really is the next Nicklaus or whether he's just golf's answer to Pete Sampras. Judging from the way he demoralized the field at St. Andrews, it's not looking good. And, without Lex Luthor, Superman is just a guy in a red cape.