One of the great things about sports is the statistical accessibility. Performance can be tangibly evaluated through numbers. In a world where black and white has evolved into innumerable shades of gray, there is comfort in the fact that in sports, black numbers printed on a white background still provide something somewhat representing an inarguable truth -- or at least a truth about which it is fun to argue.
In our age of overstatement, when superlatives are assigned to even the most mundane of achievements, some accomplishments still stand out as seemingly unassailable. Will any pitcher ever surpass Cy Young's 511 major league baseball victories? It's hard to imagine. How about Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak? Or Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points in an NBA game? Or Johnny Unitas' streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive NFL games? All are candidates for records that will never be broken.
And then there are the two marks carved into the golf record books by Byron Nelson: 18 PGA Tour victories in a single season and 11 consecutive wins. Those are accomplishments that will truly last as long as the professional game is played. At least so it seemed.
With the uncanny sense of history that shadows his career, Tiger Woods followed the death of Nelson last week with a triumph at the WGC-American Express Championship so definitive as to suggest that at least one of those marks is in jeopardy. For the second time in his career, Woods has won six consecutive PGA Tour events, and this time don't bet against his surpassing the 11 in a row notched by Lord Byron.
Throughout his career, Woods has displayed an eerie synchronization with history. His record three consecutive U.S. Amateur Championships set the stage for his professional career. He not only won the first major championship in which he played as a professional -- the 1997 Masters -- but he did it by a record 12 strokes. And was it mere coincidence that his first major came in an event that hadn't allowed a black player into the field until the year Tiger was born, and hadn't integrated its membership until Woods was in high school? The man is all about making statements.
Tiger's greatest year (so far) was the season of 2000, when he won nine times, including three major championships, almost as if to stamp the new century as his own. In the middle of that summer, after winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a record 15 strokes, Tiger completed the career Grand Slam, appropriately, on the Old Course at St. Andrews, the home of golf. He completed the double career Grand Slam in 2005, again at St. Andrews. The man is all about history.
And that's why this time it is totally within reason to think the victory streak Woods is on now will not end until after he passes Nelson's mark of 11 in a row. The record of 18 victories in a season might well last forever, in part because current players compete in only about that many events in a year. But 11 in a row? Ah, that's one Woods can focus on and surpass.
We've been afforded a very instructive peek into what Woods is all about over the last two weeks. At the Ryder Cup, Tiger was good but not great, especially in his four pairs matches when he was teamed with Jim Furyk. And then he gets to the AmEx tournament and he smokes the field.
Why the difference?
The simple answer is that the Ryder Cup does not mean as much to Woods. But that would be an incorrect judgment. He wanted to win there as much as anyone. Probably more. It's just that the Ryder Cup does not fit comfortably into the essence of Tiger Woods. This quest he is on to be regarded as the greatest golfer of all time is all about individual achievement. Being on the golf course with a partner is, for Tiger, a distraction. He needs to get lost in the isolated zone of concentration to be at his best. Right now, he is at his best.
There are two reasons Woods might very well surpass the record of 11 in a row set by Nelson. First off, he is a better player than he was in 1999-2000, when he won six in a row. He has all the skills he had back then, but his course management is impeccable now. The way he thinks his way around a golf course has become absolutely Nicklausian. It must be frightening for other players to see that Tiger has figured out he can attack most courses without his driver and still bring it to its knees.
In the young Woods, his greatest strength and his greatest weakness was the same thing: In his heart of hearts, he believed he could do anything. That sometimes led him to trying the hero shot when he didn't need to, and that sometimes resulted in a big number that brought him down. Not so now. Now Woods hits the hero shot only when it is needed -- and no one pulls off more impossible shots than Woods. But like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger now realizes that you have to shoot a 65 only when you need to shoot a 65.
The second reason Woods has a chance to win 11 in a row has to do with that sense of history he possesses. In some ways, it felt as if Woods did not want to break Mr. Nelson's record while Byron was still alive so as to spare him the annoyance of having to answer all the questions about how it felt to have the mark shattered. Now, however, it feels as if breaking the record would be a way in which Woods could pay a lasting tribute to Nelson.
There is a certain sadness to the fact that this season will end with Woods several victories short of Nelson's 11 in a row. But it also seems appropriate within the context of Tiger's sense of the dramatic. How cool will it be to have a nearly two-month buildup from the Tour Championship to next season's Mercedes Championships in which to anticipate Tigers assault on one of golf's unbreakable records?
There is a short list of the greatest to play the professional men's game: Young Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Nelson and Nicklaus. Already, at the age of 30, Woods deserves to be placed among them. That's why he should be regarded quite seriously as capable of breaking one of golf's -- and one of sports' -- unbreakable records.
We are seeing history. Let's enjoy it.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine