UPDATE: With the tragic event happening yesterday with Tiger getting into a serious car accident, requiring emergency surgery on his right leg and ankle, we at Pro Shop Golf want to stand by our post below that Tiger still gets our vote for the greatest athlete of all time, and we are already excited for the GOAT to make yet another comeback in a year's time. We believe in you, Tiger, and golf loves you dearly. Get well soon.
As I write this first sentence, Tiger Woods just announced that he has gone under the knife for his fifth back surgery. Hearing this news makes golf fans around the world – myself included, of course – hold their collective breaths. This could be it: we may never see Tiger play again. Thankfully, to go with this news is the astounding response from Tiger that gives us fans hope for a golf future with him in it: “I look forward to begin training and am focused on getting back out on tour.”
Thought #1: [Bleep] yeah, thank you, Baby Jesus!
Question #1: Is Tiger Woods the greatest athlete of all time?
If you find yourself wondering how we go from imagining seeing Tiger play again to asking whether or not he’s the greatest athlete of all time, well, let’s just say that Tiger is simply always on our golfing minds, but even moreso lately with this recent news and the newly released Tiger on HBO that exploded onto our television screens these past many weeks. And, after crushing said documentary, it made all of us at PSG think about so much in relation to professional sport that we couldn’t help but ask the question, so let’s dive deep into this contentious playing field and see if we can come up with a result, or at the very least, a great debate among our great community of golfers. Let’s go!
Athlete vs. Athletic: what’s the difference?
It’s important to first define the difference between an athlete and being athletic, as the debate on who is the greatest athlete of all time can sometimes skew voters into thinking they are voting for athleticism, and we’d like to update the debate to include other metrics to help decide the winner.
Merriam-Webster defines each as the following:
- a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina
- characteristic of an athlete
This small difference can have a massive impact on the debate, and here’s why…
ESPN has already – arguably – crowned the greatest athlete of all time, but when digging deeper into their rubric, it appears as though voters were asked to voice their opinion on who is the most athletic athlete of all time, as they used metrics such as speed, power, reaction time, etc. So who was chosen as ESPN’s greatest athlete of all time? The answer is Bo Jackson. “Case closed”, apparently.
If you’re now finding yourself wondering how the heck Bo Jackson is crowned as the greatest athlete of all time, then maybe – just maybe – your intuition is sounding an alarm that there’s more we should be asking when we’re thinking about answering such a question. Maybe the debate needs to focus more on the athlete (noun) in a variety of metrics rather than merely their athleticism (adjective). Think of it this way: Bo knows football and baseball, but how would he fare in a swimming pool? Phelps knows swimming, but how would he fare in the boxing ring? Tony Hawk knows skateboarding, but can he skate on an ice rink? You get the idea. Athleticism can only get you so far within certain sports that you’re genetically built for, or for which you’ve spent 10,000+ hours on, so is it truly fair to crown a winner based solely on their athleticism, or is there more to being an athlete that we haven’t yet considered within the debate?
We think there is, and here are some of our suggestions for an updated rubric when we think about crowning the greatest athlete of all time – and for the record, this post is not an exhaustive argument, or an outlet to pick a winner, but rather a prompt to reopen the conversation. So you don’t have to decide now, but please do consider the rubric and the questions posed, and formulate your debate and save it for, what we hope will be, a lively discussion moving forward.
Of course we need to consider athleticism, as there’s no denying that athletic ability matters: you don’t rise to be the best in your sport without having exceptional athletic ability. In our opinion, however, athleticism is merely a pre-requisite that gets you into the conversation as the greatest athlete of all time (GAOAT). As we touched on above, the best of the best are all athletic in their own right, but you can take any top athlete and take them out of their element and you will see them turn into a layman, so to use this as the sole metric for crowning a winner is, in our opinion, near-sighted.
But as we have posed the question with Tiger, we must address his level of athleticism and how it stands out compared to, say, the current GAOAT, Bo Jackson. Ask yourself just how much more athletic Bo was to Tiger. Was he physically stronger than Tiger, could he lift more with his legs, arms, chest? Possibly, but let’s not discount just how physically elite Tiger has been throughout his career. Could he outrun Tiger in a sprint? That’s an emphatic yes. Could he outrun Tiger in an endurance run? I’m not so sure, as Tiger was quite the runner during his intense training years. Was Bo mentally stronger? Well, ask yourself if you can think of any other athlete who could compare to Tiger’s mental prowess. In fact, this is a highly underrated muscle and psychological ability that differentiates Tiger from all others. But let’s not go too far into the weeds with this. Let these questions incubate for a while, as we’ll readdress it all in the end of this post.
In order to be the best, you have to win – games, championships, awards, etc. Granted, Bo won some impressive awards throughout his career – Heisman, MVP, all star – and in two major sports leagues, but does he stand out among his athletic peers? Arguably, no. Bo never won a Super Bowl, and he’s not a Hall of Famer – two very important accolades as an athlete – and this shouldn’t be ignored. Bo was athletic as athletic comes, but being deemed the greatest athlete of all time must require the winner to be an ultimate winner. Bo was impressive, but there are many elite athletes that have much more impressive achievements throughout their careers. Now ponder Tiger’s resume since his high school, amateur, and professional days, and let his and other top athletes’ bling – Jordan, Phelps, etc. –marinate for a while before we discuss.
Many athletes stand out in their respective sport, but ask yourself just how many are truly dominant? Bo won some great individual awards, but was he dominant over his peers? Maybe. But was he truly dominant, over, and over, for many years? I mean, truly, truly dominant? Was he Phelps-, Gretzky- or Tiger-esque dominant? Did Bo break record, after record, after record? You might be hard-pressed to say yes to any of these questions. So here’s another question: if you’re going to be crowned the greatest athlete of all time, is it fair to wear such attire knowing that other athletes have been generational talent in their respective sports. To further confirm this point, ask yourself whether or not we’ll see another Gretzky? Well, Crosby, McDavid, Ovechkin come to mind. Phelps? Not yet, but possibly one day. Bo? Deion Sanders comes to mind. Tiger? Don’t answer that last question. Instead, cover it and let it proof for a bit.
What do Bobby Orr and Bo Jackson have in common? The answer is they were both considered elite athletes who had their careers cut short due to injury. Injuries harm more than the body; they also harm the player’s status as the greatest athlete of all time, as a career-ending injury puts an abrupt halt to more years of greatness. As you’ve already noticed, I love to ask questions to dig deeper – it’s the Socrates inside of me – so now it’s time to ask yourself whether or not we can pick someone as the GAOAT on potential greatness throughout a career, when their careers were unfortunately cut short? Granted, we can always include them in the conversation out of respect for their level of greatness while they were competitive, but when we have other athletes to choose from who lasted for years more at an elite level, is it fair to pick the former over the latter? Remember, we’re just spitballin’ here, so give these questions time to hang out there and we’ll see if they stick in the end, as we only have one more category to consider.
Perhaps one of the most underappreciated aspects of what makes an athlete rise to a level of greatness the world has barely ever witnessed is the impact they had on the world; Jordan and Tiger are arguably the only athletes to have ever created such an incredible amount of mania throughout the world when they arrived onto the sports scene. But what is it about them that drove fans wild with excitement? It’s possible the answer is that they were such generational talent that the public just knew they were watching, every week, a special type of athlete that rarely comes around. But what differentiates Tiger from Jordan, or other athletes in the conversation for greatest athlete of all time? The answer is that Tiger not only made an impact on the world (Hello, World), but he also impacted his entire sport. Money aside – although not to discount Tiger’s financial impact on golf – Tiger literally changed the nature of his sport. Golf courses had to be lengthened, greens continue to be made faster and with more slope, and all of his colleagues had to start training and thinking about the game of golf in a whole new light: they realized they need to hit the gym more, eat and sleep better, and control their emotions like a trained assassin in order to even have a chance at beating the Man in Red. Golfers had to become athletes because of Tiger.
So what do you think, is athleticism enough to choose the greatest athlete of all time, or do categories such as what’s presented above make you question Bo Jackson being the current GAOAT? Are there any other categories you think we should all consider that haven’t been mentioned? We’d love to hear your suggestions, as well as your well-formed debate on the issue, so please comment here and/or on social media, share it with your friends, and let’s see what we all come up with. Let’s go!
P.S. My vote does, in fact, go to Tiger.