You almost have to wonder if this was the only challenge left. If one afternoon, Tiger Woods, thoroughly bored with his own dominance, started dreaming up scenarios. How about not just winning the U.S. Open, but doing so with a bum ankle? No, too easy. What about if, instead of an ankle, it was my knee, and it was so painful I could barely walk? What if it was so painful I needed surgery? Sounds about right.
The world learned at the Open last June that 70 percent of Tiger Woods is better than 100 percent of any other golfer. It was one of those performances that transcends the sport, up there in the annals of gimpy greatness with MJ's flu-ridden Game 6 and Gibson's limp-legged homer. Hell, I don't even like golf and I was transfixed. And, looking back now, it is even more remarkable in retrospect. Sure, I remembered that Tiger needed ACL surgery after the Open, but I'd forgotten that it was his first time playing since his last surgery, two months prior. I remembered the 19-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate; I'd forgotten that Tiger was so rusty to start the tourney that his first hole was a double bogey. And I remembered that he looked hobbled, but I'd forgotten just how badly; to view footage of the tournament is to see his knee crumpling time and again, accompanied by a one-man show, Tiger Woods starring in Grimaces: A Thousand Faces of Anguish.
The Open alone makes Tiger a Sportsman candidate. What seals the deal is the great, roaring vacuum that his departure created in the world of golf. Other than the Ryder Cup, a patriotic venture people like me care about in the same way we care about the Women's World Cup, I can't recall a single golf event since June. The rest of the competitors blend into one visor-wearing, soft-bellied, middle-aged guy who seems to always be squinting. Stewart Furykelson.
Life without Tiger? Five months later the No. 1 player in golf is still Woods, by a mile. Five months later TV ratings have plummeted as if they're being traded on the NASDAQ (the PGA Championship's numbers were down more than 50 percent from last year). Five months later the biggest non-Ryder golf buzz I can recall is when Tiger appeared in some video game commercial where he walked on water. And it wasn't even a good commercial.
What has become increasingly clear is that not only is golf better off with Tiger Woods, but that it's downright screwed without him. Think NHL, think tennis, think of other slowly atrophying sports that can't compete with short attention spans and diversifying entertainment options. Without Tiger, only people who play golf will follow golf. Without Tiger, golf is the province of old white guys who remind you of your friend's dad, and that is not a demo that plays well with the 18-24s. Without Tiger, golf is a niche.
So when it comes to Sportsman talk, no, Tiger is no great humanitarian. Neither has he taken advantage of his clout -- would there have been an easier, more natural move for a guy like Woods than endorsing Obama this year? And no, he didn't set records like Phelps did. But what Woods did give us was one of the most indelible sports moments of recent history, followed by a reminder of why, more than ever, he matters. For that, he is my 2008 Sportsman of the Year.