When Tiger Woods steps on the tee Thursday morning at Bethpage Black in the first round of the U.S. Open, he’ll continue his long running stare-down with history.
Given Woods’ career accomplishments and commitment to excellence, many expect history to eventually blink first.
The last time Bethpage Black hosted the U.S. Open was in 2002. When the tournament dust settled, Woods hoisted the championship hardware.
It was his second of three Open victories.
If Woods can turn the trick again this Sunday, he’ll capture his 15th major and move within three of tying Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.
But somewhat lost in the shuffle will be the friendly competition Woods and his good buddy Roger Federer are currently waging.
The consistent level of domination displayed by both Woods and Federer begs the question: Who’s had the more challenging time accumulating his major championship trophies?
The obvious answer is Federer. But before detailing why, lets’ delve into the characteristics both players share that make them so dominant.
Both men are in hot pursuit of the all-time major championships records for their respective sports. Adding even more intrigue to the chase is that Woods and Federer just so happen to be locked in a dead heat with 14 trophies each.
After tying the legendary Pete Sampras for the all-time lead with his first French Open crown a few weeks ago, Federer is in a position to unseat Sampras at the very site where Sampras played his most dominant tennis, Wimbledon.
Tennis and golf each require incredible shot making skills under the most crushing pressure. Such a feat is not accomplished without extreme mental focus.
It’s the type of focus that let’s Woods sink a putt on the 18th hole in the 2008 U.S. Open to force an 18-hole playoff the next day. It’s also the same focus that let’s Federer rally from a two set deficit in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open.
Each man thrives on being the absolute best at his sport.
But that’s where the comparisons end.
Strictly from a physical stand point, tennis is the far more demanding sport.
Tennis players must have supreme conditioning to run around a court for anywhere from three to five hours in some matches.
When it comes to the fifth set of the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon, there is no tie-breaker and the victor must win the set by two games. Those sets in themselves can be endless marathons.
What tennis fan can forget Andy Roddick beating Younes El Anaoui, 21-19, in the fifth set of the 2003 Australian Open quarterfinals? The entire set lasted two hours and 23 minutes.
Golfers, on the other hand, walk the course. Let me repeat that. They walk the course. Did I mention they don’t even carry their own bags?
Sure, there are plenty of summer time tournaments in which golfers will be out on the course in searing heat for hours at a time. But what’s more exhausting, walking around Torrey Pines on a hot summer day or running around Ashe Stadium for over three hours on Labor Day at the U.S. Open?
What’s more, how many golfers need to add Jenny Craig to their payrolls? A lot. Try being a fat guy on the ATP Tour. Aint happening.
When players such as John Daly, Angel Cabrera and Phil Mickelson (20 pounds ago) can all win major championships while at the same time needing Frank Costanza to size them for a “manssiere”, that tells you all you need to know about the necessary fitness level for golf.
This is not to say Woods isn’t in shape. The man is a physical specimen, but that is by choice. Does it help Woods win? Absolutely. Being in tip top shape is a necessity for Federer.
The window tennis players have to compete at the required level to challenge for championships is significantly smaller than golfers.
A tennis player enters his or her prime in their mid twenties. A golfer reaches his or her prime in their early thirties.
Federer, who turns 28 in early August, has won at least one Grand Slam every year since 2003. It’s taken him seven years to amass 14 titles.
Given his age, along with the rise of younger studs like Nadal, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic, Federer realistically has a few more years to compete at the highest level.
Woods, 33, captured his first major at the 1997 Masters. Since then, he’s collected his 14 majors over 13 seasons.
Vijay Singh won the 2000 Masters at age 37 and was triumphant at the 2004 PGA Championship at age 41. Will it really come as a shock if Woods is still winning majors at age 41?
To win in either sport, any champion must be mentally tough.
A golfer, assuming he or she cards a typical round, will hit between 65-75 shots during a round. Therefore, strokes take place every few minutes.
In tennis, players regularly engage in rallies of 20-30 strokes over the span of a minute.
The focus required by a tennis player is that much more intense over a longer period of time. Throw in the physical fatigue resulting from hours on court and focus is that much harder to maintain.
Given the frequency differential of shots between the sports, golfers almost always have several minutes of rest between shots. Tennis players have 25 seconds of rest between points and 90 seconds of rest on change-overs.
Golfers play four rounds in major tournaments. Tennis players must endure seven rounds in Grand Slams.
It’s possible in golf to have a lousy first round, shoot a great round the second day, and live to see the weekend. If a tennis player has a stinker of a first round, he or she is collecting the first round loser’s check and making an early airline reservation.
Perhaps the biggest argument in support of golf is the number of opponents a golfer must best in each tourney. Tennis players only have to defeat the seven players placed in their path to capture a Grand Slam. Golf majors often have fields of over 100 players—this year’s U.S. Open has 157 entrants.
But here’s why that argument doesn’t hold water.
Competitors in both sports certainly have to deal with the intimidation factor, whether it is being paired with Woods on the Sunday of a major or looking across the net of a grass court and seeing Federer. Sometimes a player is beaten before the match or round even begins.
However, golfers have no direct effect on their opponents’ shots. None. Nada. Zip.
If Woods bombs a 337 yard drive in the center of the fairway on a par-5, Mickelson can’t walk over to the ball and kick it into the high rough.
In tennis, players have a chance to dictate the outcome on almost every single point played.
During the upcoming Wimbledon, watch how many times Federer and Roddick win their service games at love simply because their opponent couldn’t handle the power of their serves. Same thing went for Pete Sampras. Pistol Pete had more than his share of love games on the grass resulting from a combination of aces and service winners.
When Woods is struggling to find his game, he only has to right his own ship. When Federer can’t get into his usual groove, not only must he rediscover his stroke, but he also has to solve the onslaught from the guy on the other side of the court.
The bottom line is that when Woods and Federer are both playing at their peak, both men are nearly impossible to beat. When Woods is in a zone, the other golfers are playing for second place. They can only try to keep up.
When Federer is on top of his game, his opponent still has a chance to win points on his own serve and he gets shot after shot to dent Federer’s serve.
Ironically enough, whether Woods wins the U.S. Open or not, the day after the last putt falls at Bethpage, the first balls will be served at Wimbledon.
As for his side competition with Woods? It will literally be Federer’s serve.
But no matter how both combatants fare, one thing is for sure. Federer’s rise to the top has been the far more challenging ascent.