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Bob Ryan

The astonishing Woods is the daddy of them all

When Tiger Woods claimed the PGA Championship trophy, he improved to 13-0 when leading a major after three rounds. When Tiger Woods claimed the PGA Championship trophy, he improved to 13-0 when leading a major after three rounds. (CHARLIE RIEDEL/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Don't start with the "golf is not a sport" argument, because I don't want to hear it. Semantics, that's all it is.

"Sport," "game," "activity." Whatever. It really doesn't matter to me. Golf happens to be a pursuit beloved by millions the world over who know it to be fiendishly difficult and fascinating. In ways most other sports are not. Many have amused themselves by citing Mark Twain's famous declaration that golf is "a good walk spoiled," and if that's all golf is to them, fine.

We all have our druthers. To me, no lifetime could ever be long enough to warrant devoting so much as five seconds to fishing, but I fully realize there are millions of my fellow Americans who dream of spending the rest of their lives in pursuit of a trout or marlin, and I can respect that. Just don't expect me to tag along.

So for the sake of this argument I am calling Tiger Woods an athlete, and not just any athlete but the greatest athlete of our time. And by the time he's done, he may very well be up for consideration as the greatest American athlete of any time.

I fear that we are becoming numbed to Tiger's astonishing greatness. Tiger Woods is so surpassingly great at what he does that he runs the risk of making the exceedingly difficult seem boringly routine. He has set the highest performance bar of any athlete we ever have known.

I hardly know where to start, but let's commence with this: Since July 23, 2006, when he teed it up at the British Open, Tiger Woods has competed in 19 fully-staffed golf tournaments, not including his own Target World Challenges. He has won 11.

No one wins 11 of 19 golf tournaments, three of them majors. Yes, I know all about Byron Nelson's 11 straight in 1945, but we are talking about non-war, all-comers, modern golf when there never have been so many accomplished players as there are now.

As I said, no one can be expected to win 11 of 19 professional golf tournaments. There are far too many good golfers and far too many truly challenging courses for that to happen. No one has a game that sound, that diverse, that unshakeable. No one can handle every set of circumstances, from weather to a ridiculously hot foe to bad biorhythms. No one but Tiger, of course.

Winning a PGA Tour event is an enormous accomplishment. With the purses at their current level, the incentive for many isn't even all that strong. A man can make a very handsome living simply making most cuts and bagging an occasional top 10. Did you hear Boo Weekley the other day? The affable rube from the Florida panhandle says he wants nothing more from his career than to make enough money during a 10- or 12-year period to be able to go back home and go after those big-mouth bass. Period.

We can only imagine what Tiger Woods thought when he heard or read that. Not playing to win? This is a completely unimaginable concept for Tiger. In fact, he addressed the idea in depth before the PGA Championship when he smirked that he was present for one reason, and it wasn't to "work on my farmer tan." The only reason to compete, he said, is to win. Otherwise, what's the point?

That's somewhat easy to say when you begin your professional career at age 20 with approximately $60 million in Nike seed money, I suppose. You are forever insulated from making on-course decisions tied to money. Any risk you take concerns winning or losing, not the difference between some money and a Whole Lotta Money. For Tiger, the $1,360,000 he made for winning the PGA is a pleasant byproduct. What mattered to Tiger was finishing first. That, and the fact that in the only accounting Tiger really cares about, it's 13 down and six to go.

And, yes, he's going to catch Jack Nicklaus. He'll turn 32 Dec. 30, which means he'll have 32 opportunities to win the needed six majors during his 30s. Turning 40 won't exactly put him into assisted living, either. We see very successful 40-something athletes everywhere we look. It's pretty evident that 40 is the new 36 or something. With his high degree of fitness, turning 40 won't mean a whole lot.

Tiger's expectation level is unlike anyone's ever, and that includes Nicklaus himself. At no point in Jack's wonderful career did anyone ever handicap a major, even facetiously, as "Jack vs. The Field." But this routinely happens when Woods is involved.

Now, I may be willing to grant you that at various stages of Jack's career there were extremely worthy rivals at or very close to his level (Palmer, Trevino, Player, Watson, Miller, Weiskopf, etc.), but if I were to grant the Nicklaus Era superiority, say 2 through 6, there is really no comparison 2 through 20, 2 through 50, 2 through 100 or 2 through 400. The Field in question is very, very deep and very talented. To seriously suggest that the way to handicap a major is Tiger vs. this Field is as supreme a compliment as any athlete ever has been paid.

Tiger's essential competition is Tiger. The standards are his own. Much was made of the fact that as he placed that tee in the ground to begin his final round Sunday, he was 12-0, lifetime, when leading or co-leading a major after three rounds. Now it's 13-0. Someday he might actually not win a major under those circumstances. Will someone dare say that Tiger has "failed"? Would that be an appropriate response to a situation applicable to no other golfer who ever has lived? Tiger forever will carry the burden of being Tiger, but we know he will cope.

For years we kidded that the only things that ever could derail Tiger were romance or injury. The romance doesn't seem to have affected him adversely. We now know he has a somewhat balky left knee, but that seems manageable. About the only thing left is fatherhood, and now he has his first post-daddy major in the books.

The big tests lie ahead. Fortunately for the Field, his baby is a little girl. The day could come when Tiger needs to spend an extra hour working on a troublesome snap hook or maybe a little putting problem, and little Sam Alexis bats her baby blues at Tiger and says, "Daddy, would you read me a story?" Tiger would have no choice.

If I'm the Field, that little girl is my only hope.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at