A recent U.S. Open champion was being modest when he said he does not deserve extra credit for having won a major championship while Tiger Woods was playing.
"Majors are majors, aren't they?" said Geoff Ogilvy, the champion at Winged Foot in 2006. "There's always going to be a best golfer in the world."
True, but there will only be one Tiger Woods.
As Ogilvy, other fellow pros and the public all know, there is just something about watching someone who probably is the best there ever was at what they do. Woods is one of the most recognizable people on the planet, having burst from his sport into society's mainstream the way Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali did.
The current best golfer in the world transcends even the rankings that put him No. 1. Last month, when it looked like the top spot in the World Golf Ranking was up for grabs among top golfers, Ogilvy, one of those in contention, said, "Even if someone [else] does get to be No. 1 in the world, I don't think someone else is going to think they're truly the No. 1 player in the world. The reality is Tiger is the best player in the world at the moment and probably for the foreseeable future."
Woods is the one who makes golf TV ratings soar when he is in contention and flop when he does not play. He determines the survival or demise of tournaments (the International) or tournament sites (Westchester) by deciding whether he wants to play there.
For most golfers, winning one major championship is a lifelong dream and winning three means being elite. Woods has won 14. And he often does it with drama and flair, such as winning a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open.
"There was the added compelling question," said David Fay, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, "of whether Tiger would be able to finish the round." Woods, it was announced later, was playing with a broken leg and a damaged knee that required major surgery.
Woods is a major celebrity in a culture that values celebrity over just about everything else. But unlike Paris Hilton, Carmen Electra and fill in whatever other name you'd like, Woods isn't famous strictly for being famous. He became a celebrity while shooting for something else.
He is new age, the impresario and star of an immensely popular video game. He is old school, with 1940s-style admiration for the military (having grown up the son of a Green Beret and done a little training at Fort Bragg).
Woods is African- and Asian-American, once tied to a tree in kindergarten by bullies because he was different. He now runs a learning center on lavish grounds not far from that tree. And he was invited to speak at a pre-inauguration ceremony by the first African-American U.S. president (the only time savvy Woods watchers ever have seen him nervous).
The bottom line is, the Tiger Woods who arrives this week as a defending champion of the Open and of the Bethpage Black Course (2002 U.S. Open) is a phenomenon as much as a golfer.
Is he perfect? Of course not. He gets angry, he holds a grudge with the best of them. He steers miles from being buddy-buddy with the fellow professionals whom he has made both rich and irrelevant (many fans don't watch if Woods isn't playing).
"There's a lot of things he has that I would never want in my life," said Stuart Appleby, a neighbor in Orlando's Isleworth community. "He couldn't walk into McDonald's and order a burger without being surrounded by people, even if it's well-wishers. I think he uses his power, his celebrity status, very, very well. Thank God we've got a good guy at the helm."
Spectators prize the opportunity to witness the Tiger Woods era. Tour pros consider it an honor, maybe even to the point of admitting that winning a major now is something special.
"If you knock off Tiger Woods down the stretch, that will be looked at as a big thing," Ogilvy said. "But that hasn't happened too much."