Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is Tiger the Best Athlete?

On Monday, Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open. His win reaffirmed the fact that he is, far and away, the best golfer on the planet. Maybe the best ever. He's being hailed as some sort of super-human being. But is he the best athlete in the world today?

In basketball, even though his team got trounced last night in the NBA finals, Kobe Bryant is surely the best basketball player. In baseball, it's probably A-Rod who is the best. In hockey, this year, and probably for the next several years, it's Sidney Crosby. In tennis, Roger Federer is the man. I can't think of the best football player since the 49ers have been so bad that my mind just freezes up when I consider the NFL. And I have no clue who the best soccer player is since I'm an American citizen.

I simply do not know how you can declare that any one of the players I named is better than the others, since they each have different skill sets that have been honed since childhood in their chosen sport.

You can then argue that since Tiger is so much better than the guy in second place in his sport that he must be the best athlete overall. But, it seems to me that you have to consider the mental skill and athletic ability of the other players in each sport. Perhaps, for example, there are lots of more skilled and athletic players who participate in baseball than golf. Then, is it fair to say that just because Tiger is so much better than the next guy, he must be the best athlete?

I'm not sure that this is the most important issue of our day. However, since I've temporarily given up on solving world hunger, global warming, or figuring out whether Britney will get her children back, it is the top issue of my day.

Addendum added on Friday 6/20/08-- The Wall Street Journal has a relevant article today.


Anonymous said...

Can you say without a doubt which is more spectacular the the sun setting over the ocean or the sun rising?
What about whose grandchild is more wonderful?
Obviously those questions require a biased answer. So too, your question about Tiger's skills versus other athletes in different sports.
On the whole it appears to me the pundits are comparing apples to oranges.

Anonymous said...

Golf is the hardest sport in the universe to dominate. Tiger is the best golfer of all time. Therefore, by the power of transitive properties, he is the best athlete of all time.

Incontrovertible said...

Whoa! Transitive properties. If by this you mean "common logic" then my response is that you first have to prove to me that golf is the hardest sport. I'm not in the least convinced that it is.

I think hitting a baseball thrown at 99 MPH just after seeing a curve ball thrown at 88 MPH is harder than hitting a stationary golf ball.

Anonymous said...

Pro golf is not about hitting a stationary ball (btw, pro golfers hit it every time). Pro golf is about tailoring your shots to the hole and course in wildly different conditions week to week, battling 100+ players every week, dealing with the vagaries of a golf ball rolling in sand, dirt, and grass which never behave the same way twice.

In the history of golf (millions of rounds),no one has ever birdied every hole on an 18 hole course. It is impossible. The best score ever recorded is 59.

Golf is not a one day is 4 days and 72 holes which means the chances of playing well each day are very small. For the same player to do it week after week, year after year is simply the most impressive achievement anyone can imagine.

Incontrovertible said...

I don't quite know why we're only comparing golf to baseball since there are dozens of other sports, but I'll continue on that theme.

Baseball is clearly harder than golf. Only 8 players out of the many thousands who have had appeared in the major leagues have exceeded hitting .400 since 1900. It's only been done 13 times. No one has done it since Ted Williams did it in 1941. That means the very, very best players in the world are failing to get a hit over 60% of the times that they are at bat. Also, you get three tries to hit the ball each time you come to the plate.

And that's just talking about batting. Pitching is just as hard. A perfect game has only been achieved 17 times in major league history, dating back to the 1800's.

Anonymous said...

You just proved my show how hard baseball is and the fact that no one is dominating it. Tiger is hitting the equivalent of .400 and pitching perfect games in his sport which no one in baseball is doing.

Incontrovertible said...

Just how did you equate hitting .400 and pitching perfect games with whatever Tiger has accomplished? Was it with transitive properties or intransitive verbs?

Anonymous said...

My point is that Tiger dominates golf and no one dominates baseball. He has no equivalent in baseball or any other sport.

Incontrovertible said...

Maybe it's because there's a lack of skilled and athletic golfers when compared to a plethora of skilled and athletic baseball players.

Anonymous said...

Exactly..Tiger is the only true ATHLETE in the history of golf. There have been skilled golfers, but no athletic ones. Tiger is the most skilled AND athetic golfer of all time. The combination makes him truly ridiculous. Jordan was the only other athlete that rivalled Tiger in this regard.

Incontrovertible said...

Today's Wall Street Journal asks the same question.It can be found at

They say:
"The World's Greatest Athlete?
The Wall Street Journal asked a panel of sports experts to sift through a mountain of data and pick the fastest, strongest, most agile man on Earth.
June 20, 2008; Page W1

With the Olympic Games approaching, The Wall Street Journal set out to answer this parlor-game question: If Earth had to send one man to the Intergalactic Olympics, who should go?
WSJ reporter Reed Albergotti visits with decathlete Bryan Clay to see how a mere working stiff measures up to what some consider the best all-around athlete.

Identifying the world's greatest male athlete turned out to be easy to argue but difficult to answer empirically. No matter how impressive, world-class athletes mostly excel at single tasks. Olympic gold medal weightlifter Hossein Reza Zadeh can, in two quick motions, lift 580 pounds over his head, the equivalent of a year-old heifer. Marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie can run a mile in an astonishing four minutes, 45 seconds, and repeat the performance 26 times in a row. Put either man on a tennis court or pitch them a 95-mile-per-hour fastball and they might whiff as badly as any weekend hacker.

Sports physiologists don't have a system to rank all athletes. University of Texas exercise physiologist Ed Coyle said doctoral students have tried in the past "only to have their professors shut them down after months of continuous work."
Pavel Lebeda/Sport-Invest
Roman Sebrle, decathlete, Czech Republic.

The Journal sought to identify the world's greatest athlete with an approach that, while not completely scientific, took a number of measures into account. A panel of five sports scientists and exercise physiologists was given a list drawn up by the Journal of 79 male athletes. Candidates had to be active in their sport and among the all-time best. (Women will be featured separately in a future article.)

The panel weighed individual performance stats, along with their subjective judgments about the relative difficulty of each sport, to give an overall grade to the athletes. (See "How We Did It" for details.) The judges graded athletes on speed, reflexes, stamina, coordination, as well as power, strength and size. The finalists, they said, exhibited a wide range of athletic skill in highly competitive environments.

Who do you think is the world's greatest athlete?

There were some surprises. Tiger Woods, a dominant figure in professional sports, didn't crack the Top 10. Panelists said they didn't give golfers much weight when assessing overall athletic ability. Michael Phelps, one of the greatest U.S. swimmers of all time, also missed the top tier because, the judges said, swimmers generally don't perform well out of the water. Such endurance athletes as marathoners and Tour de France cyclists also failed to impress. Too one-dimensional, the panel said."

Anonymous said...

WSJ is totally different debate and completely discounts the mental part of sports...this is the final post on this topic as we have strayed from the original premise.

Incontrovertible said...

I totally agree that you have to consider the mental skill as well as the athletic ability of the other players in each sport. Golf surely demands an ability to focus your mind, and Tiger is a master at that. BTW, no matter what you think of Barry Bonds, his ability to blot out distractions (along with some very interesting chemistry) made him the most incredible athlete of his day .