- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

MEDINAH, Ill. — In a sports world addicted to identifying and heralding the next great thing, Tiger Woods is that rarest of athletes — a prodigy who actually has outstripped the most outlandish of expectations.

At this week’s 88th PGA Championship, the 30-year-old Woods will put the final touches on his first full decade as a professional. Regardless of what happens at Medinah, golf has never seen such a decade. The first installment of what could well be a three-part, 30-year career has yielded 50 PGA Tour victories, 11 major titles and dozens of records.

In 10 short years, Woods has made the question of golf’s all-time greatest a two-name discussion (Woods and Jack Nicklaus). And given his unwavering march toward the Golden Bear’s mark, perhaps it won’t be long before the sports world has to address Tiger’s place in its pantheon of all-time athletes.

“That’s a step in the right direction if we’re looking at golfers as athletes,” Woods quipped yesterday. “I think if you’re in that conversation, I think you’ve been very fortunate and had a great career. Hopefully I can continue doing what I’m doing so that I can be part of that discussion.”

For most child prodigies, which Woods was from the moment he swapped putts with Bob Hope on “The Mike Douglas Show” at age 2, such discussions never materialize. The sporting landscaping is littered with the failed careers of can’t-miss young prospects.

For every Kobe Bryant there are a dozen Korleone Youngs and Leon Smiths, much less Kwame Browns. For every Peyton Manning, there’s a Ryan Leaf or Tony Mandarich. And for every such NFL bust, scores of “chosen, special” kids have seen their dreams collapse long before draft day, college crashouts a la Rick Mirer and Marcus Vick.

So when Nicklaus played his first practice round with a still-amateur Woods at Augusta National in 1996 and predicted that Woods would win as many green jackets as he and Arnold Palmer combined (10), the golf world wondered how the Bear could put such a pyrite curse on the kid.

But Woods has never disappointed.

He followed an unrivaled three U.S. Junior Amateur titles with an unprecedented three U.S. Amateur titles (1994-96), added an NCAA individual championship at Stanford and then made a seamless transition into the pro game.

Unlike Michelle Wie or Freddy Adu, there was no mandatory waiting period on Tiger’s greatness. His professional results were both immediate and unbelievable.

A week after winning the 1996 U.S. Amateur, Woods turned pro with only seven events remaining on the schedule and parlayed those limited starts into two victories and a 25th place finish on the money list. Six months later in his first major start as a professional, he authored a memorable breakthrough, smashing the field at Augusta National (by 12 strokes), the Slam color barrier and the Masters scoring record (18-under 270).

“I was fortunate enough to win my first major out of the gate as a professional, so that relieved a lot of pressure there and a lot of people asking questions,” Woods said. “If you’ve gone for a while without winning a major championship, those questions certainly can be annoying.”

Woods dealt with that annoyance twice, when major minislumps followed each of his voluntary swing changes (1998 and 2003-04).

But his focus never wavered during those overhauls. And both times he emerged with an even more complete game. He’s never satisfied, always tweaking, always improving.

“Golf is very fluid,” Woods said. “It’s always changing, always evolving.”

That drive and commitment is perhaps his ultimate gift as an athlete. Unlike similar phenoms with massive early career success (Venus or Serena Williams), Tiger’s competitive fire has never slackened, not even after he accomplished the unthinkable, climbing golf’s virtual Everest by winning four straight majors (2000-01).

And unlike close friend Ken Griffey Jr., Woods already has confronted the injury bug … and squashed it, rebounding from left knee surgery in 2003 in typical fashion by winning in his first start after arthroscopy (Buick Invitational). In fact, Woods built his tour-record 142-tournament cut streak (1998-2005) despite the swing changes and reconstructed knee.

Woods refuses to let anything interrupt his march on history, least of all the competition. If he’s on, he wins. His ability to close is unmatched. In 39 tournaments in which he has held or shared the 54-hole lead, Woods has lifted the laurels 36 times. In the all-important majors, he’s 11-0 in such situations.

“I did not think in my wildest dreams I could have achieved what I’ve achieved so far,” said Woods, who returns to this site of his 1999 PGA uprising as the favorite again after back-to-back victories at the British and Buick Opens. “As you look at my overall career, it’s been a fantasy.”

It certainly seems unbelievable, but Woods is finishing the first stage of a career that has him on track to become the most decorated professional athlete in history. Nobody likely would bet against him catching Nicklaus’ 18 majors or Sam Snead’s 82 PGA Tour victories. And if his next 20 years come close to matching his opening decade of dominance, perhaps the only discussion will involve determining who ranks second among history’s athletic titans.

• • •

THREE WHO LIVED UP TOTHE HYPE ? AND THREE WHO DIDN’T

Kobe Bryant

THE HYPE: Drafted out of high school in 1996by Hornets, then traded toLakers.

THE RESULT: Helped lead Lakers to three titles, scored 81 points in a game last season.

Petyon Manning

THEHYPE: No. 1 overall pick in the 1998NFLDraft, son of former star QB Archie Manning.

THERESULT: Two-time NFLMVP, broke Dan Marino’s record in 2004 with 49 touchdown passes.

Michael Phelps

THEHYPE: Entering 2004 Olympics, Phelps was expected to chase Mark Spitz’s gold medal record.

THERESULT: Fell short of Spitz’s record but tied another record by winning eight medals overall.

Kwame Brown

THE HYPE: High schooler fromGeorgia was Wizards’ No. 1 overall pick in 2001 NBADraft.

THERESULT: Traded to Lakers after not averaging more than 10.9 points a game in four seasons.

Ryan Leaf

THE HYPE: Selected No. 2 overall, behind Manning, in the 1998 NFLDraft by the San Diego Chargers.

THERESULT: Retired at the age of 26 after only 25 games with four different teams.

Eric Lindros

THE HYPE: A phenom from Canada, in his youth he was compared favorably toWayne Gretzky.

THERESULT: Concussions plagued his career as well as a bitter feud with Flyers GMBobby Clarke.

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