I'll get straight to the point: Tiger Woods is peerless. Yeah, there were those wondrous things he did in his prime with a golf club, but I'm talking about his driving, chipping and putting toward the unprecedented.
Let's start with a bunch of "fours." Despite Woods sitting four Saturdays away from turning 42, and despite his four back surgeries in three years and despite his lack of finishing all four majors in nearly three years and not winning one since 2008, he means more to his sport than any current athlete. That includes LeBron James, Tom Brady and even Serena Williams. The more I think about it, outside of Babe Ruth and Pele, nobody in history surpasses Woods when it comes to making his occupation an obsession through years for the combination of diehards within that particular sport and those who wouldn't know whether you pump air into a football or a hockey puck.
Only legends can put legends into perspective. So it isn't surprising Hank Aaron was the first to mention all of this to me about Woods.
In case you're wondering, Aaron did so 10 years ago.
"I don't know of anybody who would be better," Aaron told me back then, when Woods showed no signs of stopping what he began just before the turn of the century, which was producing golf enthusiasts at a crazy pace.
Consider, too, that Aaron has a bronze plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame after slamming 755 home runs along the way to a slew of records, and he's a lifetime Cleveland Browns fan. Even so, he placed Woods ahead of that running back icon of the Browns from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s when it comes to athletes dominating their sport.
Yep, THAT guy.
"As great as Jim Brown was, and as great as Michael Jordan was, and as great as anybody you'd want to keep mentioning, I don't know of anybody who was as great at his sport as this man is now," Aaron continued to tell me about Woods during the spring of 2008. "I mean, he's totally incredible. He's phenomenal. Sometimes I hear people say, 'He's lucky.' Well, you can throw that talk out. You can be lucky and good, but he is absolutely good. Even when he's way ahead, he wants to make every putt and every golf shot as perfect as possible."
Months later, Woods captured the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg courtesy of his various aches and pain. Then came his slide due to the physical and to the mental, resulting from several highly publicized personal issues. Even though members of the old gang remained (Phil Mickelson, Vijay Sing, Ernie Els) and the new ones were coming (Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler), they weren't Tiger. For verification, you had the end of last week, when everybody in the universe was allowed to watch golf again. And get this: It wasn't even a real tournament, but Eldrick Tont Woods was there.
He was joined by 17 other golfers in Nassau, Bahamas, for an exhibition called the Hero World Challenge. Many were among the world's top-ranked players, including Justin Thomas, the FedEx Cup champion and the PGA Player of the Year after five victories that was highlighted by the PGA Championship. As for Tiger, well, he has 14 major titles, and he owns the record for most weeks ranked No. 1 at 683 overall (including every week from June 12, 2005 through Oct. 30, 2010), but he began this tournament at No. 1,199.
It didn't matter. That clicking sound you kept hearing from Thursday through Sunday came from those using their remotes to find the Golf Channel and NBC for Woods' first competition on a course in 10 months. He shot a 69 that first day and then a 68 the next, and suddenly, all things Tiger were rivaling the chatter in print, through cyberspace and on the airwaves about the conference championship games in college football.
Although Woods couldn't keep the bogeys away on Saturday, his 75 didn't lose many viewers, and he rewarded their patience with a closing 68. Not only was Tiger back, but so were the television ratings. According to the Golf Channel, there were 29 percent more folks watching the Hero tournament this season compared to last. Why? Well, it's the same reason NBC reported the 22.4 million minutes streamed this time was second only on their network this year to the British Open.
Just like the good old days for golf. They started after 21-year-old Woods destroyed the field so much to capture the 1997 Masters that the traditionalists in charge of the green jackets around Augusta National attempted to Tiger proof their place. It didn't work, with Woods winning the Masters three more times over the next seven years, and much of the public couldn't care less about the game's loss of parity. Courses were built in record numbers to accommodate those who suddenly got Tiger/golf fever.
Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson were the George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincolns of the sport in terms of name recognition. Arnold Palmer had his army, and Gary Player remains with Jack Nicklaus as icons for the ages. None were this powerful regarding their sport: 10. Before Woods came along with his first Masters victory in 1997, that's how many golfers made $7 million during their careers. According to Golf Digest, that figure grew to 218 by the end of last year, and 157 golfers reached more than $10 million. The magazine cited soaring revenue at PGA events created just by Tiger flashing his famous teeth between fists pumps. In contrast, here's another number: 800. Bloomberg Businessweek magazine said that's approximately how many golf courses have closed over the past decade. You know, about the time Woods began his decline from invincibility. Just within the past couple of years, Nike announced it would stop making golf clubs, and who was its most famous customer? Uh-huh. There also is the research from the National Golf Foundation that shows participation in the sport has declined 20 percent per year since the early 2000s.
If LeBron quits tomorrow, the NBA still would have Steph Curry. As huge as Brady is with the New England Patriots, Peyton Manning was either in the category or beyond with the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos. Here's my point: With Manning in retirement, the NFL still made $13 billion last year.
OK, Serena IS women's tennis, but she isn't Tiger.
That's my bigger point.