- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2008

It was a great story, Tiger Woods‘ one-legged U.S. Open win — great for him, anyway. But it may not have been such a great story for golf. Why? Because it raised, once again, the question of how much athleticism is required to play the game.

I mean, if you can win the national championship with a torn ACL and two stress fractures in your left leg … Heck, in most sports, injuries like that would put you on the disabled list, not in a 19-hole Monday playoff with Rocco Mediate.

This is an issue, of course, that’s debated all the time — wherever fans and alcohol congregate. Who’s the greatest athlete in any sport? What’s the hardest sport to play? The hardest position? And let’s face it, golf doesn’t often finish very high in these rankings. Golfers are considered highly skilled, sure, but no threat to win the Olympic decathlon. In fact, golf isn’t even an Olympic event (unlike, say, beach volleyball).

Ever since he turned pro, Tiger Woods has tried to change this image. Compare a photo of him now to one of him winning the 1996 U.S. Amateur, the year before he began laying waste to the PGA Tour. They don’t even look like the same person. Young Tiger was lithe and sinewy; he didn’t seem capable of hitting the ball as far as he did. Today’s Tiger has the upper body of a football player; it’s no secret where the power comes from.

By devoting all those hours to strength and fitness training, it’s almost as if Tiger is saying, “I WILL be viewed as an athlete, not as a guy who has a knack for playing a game.” And to a large extent, he has succeeded. How can somebody who has dominated his sport to the degree Woods has not be looked upon as one of the great athletes of this or any other age?

But then he goes out and wins the U.S. Open — arguably the toughest test of all — on one good wheel, and he makes you wonder: How physically demanding can golf be if you can play at such a high level despite being so debilitated? It’s hard, after all, to imagine an athlete in another sport being very competitive in that condition.

Having nothing better to do yesterday at Congressional, site of this week’s AT&T National, I batted this subject around with Jim Furyk, Mike Weir and Tim Herron. All stuck up for their sport, and not a one felt Tiger’s limping victory made golf — or golfers — look bad. They made some interesting points, too.

“It all depends on your definition of athletic,” Furyk said. “How do you compare, really, an athlete like Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali or Mickey Mantle? Who’s the greatest athlete? [Heck] if I know. Maybe Jim Brown was the greatest athlete because he played two sports [football and, at Syracuse, lacrosse, in which he was unstoppable].

“There are a lot of guys out here who can’t dribble a basketball. … Take Tiger. I’d back him right down [to the basket] on the basketball court. I’d have no problem with that at all.

“That was a joke, by the way. But look at a guy like Billy Andrade. You’d never know [because he’s only 5-9] that he was an all-state basketball player in Rhode Island. Granted, Rhode Island is about the size of Bethesda, but Billy is a very good athlete, and there are plenty of players who were good at other sports.”

Weir, for instance, skated with the Capitals once when he was in town for a tournament. Hockey is in his blood; he hails from Canada. But he turned out to be a pretty fair golfer, too, one good enough to win a Masters and a World Golf Championship.

Those with a low opinion of golfers as athletes, he says, are probably lumping the recreational player with the professional. “It’s not even close to the same game,” he goes on. “To play golf at the highest level, you’ve got to have the right technique. You’ve got to have core strength, stability. If you’re not a great athlete, you can’t swing the club as fast as we swing it. Your body would break down.”

Trying to decide which sport has the best athletes, Weir says … well, good luck with that. “The way I look at is, they can’t play golf at our level, and we can’t play their sport at their level.”

Which brings us to Herron, whose physique has never been confused with a Greek statue — and who’s quite comfortable with that. The thing about golf, he says, is that it requires a different skill set than other sports. “You don’t need speed or quickness; you need fast-twitching muscles. It’s not a reaction sport or instinctive. It’s more mental. You have time to think. Sometimes too much time.”

A lot of folks, Herron figures, share Charles Barkley’s view of golf. “Charles says golf isn’t a real sport because he can’t play it.”

There might be some truth to that. Golf, to many, is a game that — how shall I put this? — doesn’t seem like it should be as hard as it is. But how much of that hardness is conquered with athleticism — as opposed to other traits, such as a player’s powers of concentration — is, as Furyk said, a matter of personal perception.

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