- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Rarely have stars in different sports been as closely linked as Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. I mean, Babe Ruth and Red Grange never collaborated on a razor-blade ad. Gordie Howe never hung out in the locker room with Bill Russell while the Celtics celebrated another title.

So there was something fitting about Woods and Federer both winning Sunday - not just winning but overcoming their biggest obstacles to date. Is there any doubt now, after Tiger ran down the leaders in the Memorial, that he’s all the way back from the knee injury that kept him off the course for most of last year? And doesn’t Roger’s long-delayed French Open victory, which completes his career Grand Slam, move him to the very top of the Greatest Player Ever rankings (depending, of course, on your generational bias)?

In a sense, Woods and Federer need each other, need someone equally great to measure themselves against - to learn from, even. Tiger, more than a decade into his pro career, is still looking for a serious challenger, an opponent to quicken his pulse. Roger has finally found that foil in Rafael Nadal, the Man Who Returns Everything, but it was only last year that Nadal won his first major on a surface other than clay.

Not so long ago, Woods and Annika Sorenstam traded text messages, reminding each other of the score in their not-so-secret Major Championships Competition. (Upon winning the 2005 LPGA, Annika texted Tiger: “9-9.” Six weeks later, after his victory in the British Open, Tiger texted back: “10-9.”)

“It’s fun to give her the needle every time I get a chance,” he once said, “because she gives it right back.”

Lately, Federer has been on the sharp end of that needle. Perhaps you saw the Nike commercial a while back, the one in which Tiger extolled Roger’s virtues, noted he had won “10 majors and counting,” then added, “but… I have 12 majors and counting. So keep up, buddy.”

If she’s serious about this motherhood thing, Sorenstam will probably never catch Woods. With Sunday’s victory at Roland Garros, though, Federer pulled even with Tiger (not to mention Pete Sampras) at 14. And who knows, really, how high they can push that number? Golfers, after all, can play forever, and Roger has yet to turn 28.

Still, he’s a lot closer to the end than to the beginning - as Nadal has constantly reminded him in recent years, beating him not only at the French (four straight times) but also at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Indeed, Federer’s final trophy total may depend, as much as anything, on how insatiable Rafael is (or rather, on whether he’s as insatiable as Roger has been). There’s certainly nothing about the Spaniard’s game that precludes him from winning anytime, anywhere. In fact, he lacks only a U.S. Open title to cap off a career slam of his own.

That might be the biggest difference between Woods and Federer. No accomplishment has ever eluded Tiger for long, and no foe has ever proved very problematical. He’s never had nightmares about red clay, never wondered when he teed it up for a tournament whether he was the best player on the premises.

With Tiger, it seems, there are no ifs, only whens. He’s reworked his swing twice since turning pro - and, after brief transition periods, gone back to being his all-conquering self. His latest makeover, involving the reconstruction of his left knee, has gone surprisingly smoothly. His worst finish in six stroke-play events this year has been a tie for ninth, and he’s won twice.

Until Sunday, though, he hadn’t been 100 percent Tiger. It was most noticeable last month, when he had chances to win at Quail Hollow and Sawgrass but couldn’t get anything going in the last round. That’s unlike him, to have victory within reach but be unable to summon the requisite magic.

But you doubt this man at your peril. After three more weeks of fine-tuning, Woods rejoined the tour at the Memorial and maneuvered himself into contention once again. Only this time he closed the deal on the final day by hitting the purest of 7-irons within a foot on 18. His 7-under 65 had several other highlights, a pitch-in eagle among them, but that was the moment that announced to the world: Tiger’s back (especially with names like Furyk, Love, Els and Ogilvy on the leader board).

And here’s the scary part: He still hasn’t locked in for 72 holes. He prevailed at Muirfield Village, you may have noticed, despite a 74 on Friday that was his worst round of the year. Once he slams it into that gear only Eldrick Woods possesses, well, he’ll have even more to needle Federer about.

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