Tiger Woods did not win the Masters. But If he’d been Kenny Payne, he would have. If he had to make the shots Payne needed to make on the final two holes in order to win the coveted green jacket, he would have.
Greg Norman agrees. “Tiger Woods, to me, is the best clutch putter I’ve ever seen in the game of golf,” he said earlier this week.
It’s easy to say that, given the gallery of fist-pumping highlights Woods has produced on 18th greens all over the world, including his most recent: the 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Bay Hill to beat Sean O’Hair.
Quite frankly, as I watched the moment with a group of very loud friends, I didn’t think he’d make it. It was too late in the day and there was barely enough sunlight to see, let alone to accurately assess the contour of the green. And it was too soon. It was only Woods’ third tournament after a long layoff and knee surgery. Too soon.
“He won’t make it,” I said as he prepared to putt.
I’ll never say those words again.
Putts like that are why Norman and others say he’s the best clutch putter ever, but they don’t go far enough. He’s also the best clutch golfer ever. His putts often overshadow the shots he makes in order to set up the winning putt.
At Bay Hill, for instance, few talked about the 164-yard approach shot Woods made to within 12 feet. He could have hit an 8-iron that distance. But Woods assesses each shot like a NASA scientist and a fighting wind was a clear factor.
The golf gods tell you to take more club that you need in thess conditions but when your mind knows you might hit the ball 20 yards over the green, your body goes cartoonish on you and you swing like a 46-handicapper.
But you’re not Tiger Woods. He pulled out a 5 iron, a club he easily hits 200 yards. The downside was huge: a slight mis-hit would have ended up in the water near the green, a full-on clean shot might have sailed the flag into the bunker behind the green.
But Tiger lasered the ball into Mother Nature’s teeth; it landed where he needed it to be to give him a chance. And that’s all he needs. Birdie. Win.
But even declaring Woods the best clutch golfer ever doesn’t go far enough. He’s the best clutch athlete ever. Ever.
More than any other athlete, in any sport, if winning comes down to a single play, a singular convergence of mind, body and moment, Woods will come through.
Many great athletes are also clutch, but not always. And many athletes who’ve never been called great by anyone outside their own family were extremely clutch. Greatness is about talent and dominance. Clutch is about execution when the eyes of the world are upon you.
Here’s my list of the 10 most clutch athletes ever:
1. Tiger Woods
2. Michael Jordan
3. Joe Montana
4. Reggie Jackson
5. Jimmy Connors
6. Michael Phelps
7. Jesse Owens
8. Robert Horry
9. Florence Griffith Joyner
10. Reggie Miller
No doubt there are others – from eras I did not witness and sports I don’t pretend to be an expert in. (Hockey fans, who should be on this list? Gordie Howe? Bobby Orr? Patrick Roy?) And there’s no boxer on the list because fights rarely come down to “moments.”
I also struggled for a pitcher, though Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale made noise.
And I pondered Babe Didrikson, Bo Jackson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Jim Brown.
But I only had ten slots. And each of the athletes on my list created memorable moments I could see, images I could recall as if they occurred this afternoon. (Even if those images are grainy flip clips, as with Owens).
And at least one of them will likely create many more, beginning next Sunday.