Is Tiger the best ever sportsman?

Tiger Woods won his 14th major at Torrey Pines last Monday to move closer to the record. (GETTY IMAGES)

Even his latest opponent could not quell his assault on Jack Nicklaus' Majors record. Tiger, having blown away every adversary that's been put in front him since his first PGA tournament in 1996, overcame injury to chalk up his 14th Major win, taking the US Open title.

After forcing a play-off with a last-gasp birdie on the 18th at Torrey Pines last Sunday, the world No1 returned a day later to fend off the challenge of journeyman Rocco Mediate and leave himself four titles short of the Golden Bear's Majors haul.

Woods called this his "greatest victory yet", as the phenomenon battled back from a serious knee injury – at times he fell to the ground clutching his left leg – and lack of match practice to reaffirm his position as one of the greatest golfers of all-time.

When – not if – he matches Nicklaus' 18 wins, Tiger's fans will have real reason to argue that the boy from Cypress, California, is the best to have picked up a club. He may have amazed at Pebble Beach and the Old Course in the past, but on Monday Woods showed what all great champions must: immense mental fortitude and courage to win.

His 14 majors in 11 years – 12 of which were won this decade – is more impressive when considering Nicklaus' record spanned 24 years. Add to that Woods' stranglehold on the top spot in the PGA rankings and it is hard to argue he doesn't have the credentials to be considered one of sport's greatest players.

But is it fair to compare sportsmen from different disciplines? And what makes an athlete truly great?

Only a few in the past have transcended their profession – Woods sits alongside Muhammed Ali and Michael Jordan in doing so – but should global appeal and worldwide recognition be taken into account when defining the greatest ever sportsman?

Emirates Business looks at some of those who lay claim to Tiger's throne, yet, as his place in the world rankings suggests, it will be difficult to tame the new US Open champion's quest to become the best there ever was.



Self-styled as 'The Greatest', few would argue with the boxer whose interviews were almost as entertaining as his time in the ring.

His decision to change his "slave name" from Cassius Clay heralded a new era for black pride in the 1960s, and his sacrifice – a three-year ban from the sport – at the height of his career, to make a then unpopular stance against the war in Vietnam, displayed the courage and inspiration of the man.

Ali burst onto the scene at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he took gold at Light Heavyweight, before going on to land three world Heavyweight titles.

He took part in some of boxing's most thrilling fights, standing toe-to-toe with other stars of his era, such as Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston and George Foreman.

His 'Rumble in the Jungle' with the latter was perhaps his greatest win, coming back from the ban to defeat the seemingly unstoppable Foreman against the odds.

Still one of the most recognisable men in the world, Ali championed the causes of the developing world, fighting his most high-profile contests in places others would not have dared, including Kinshasa in Zaire, Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

While boxing experts claim Sugar Ray Robinson the better technical boxer, 'The Louisville Lip' brought a new dimension to being a champion with his charm and wit that made him difficult to dislike.

He was voted as 'Sportsman of the Century' by Sports Illustrated, 'Sports Personality of the Century' by BBC and 'Athlete of the Century' by GQ magazine, confirming Ali's place as one of sport's best.


'The Golden Bear' is widely regarded as the greatest ever golfer due to his record 18 major titles between 1962 and 1986.

Whilst Woods is expected to beat the American's tally in the future, experts claim that Nicklaus' achievements – at a time when he had vastly inferior equipment and arguably a better standard of opponent – will for ever go unmatched.

Part of the 'Big Three' with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, he is credited for transforming golf into a major spectator sport as the rivalry with his two main competitors drove global interest.

In 1971, he won the PGA Championship to become the first golfer to land all four Majors twice in a career. In 1974 the Ohio-born golfer was one of 13 original inductees into the official World Golf Hall of Fame.

Recognised as one of the best putters to compete on Tour, Nicklaus also had the ability to outdrive others when in his prime. He popularised the 'power fade' on his way to 73 PGA Tour wins, the second highest of any player in history. He had a successful stint on the senior Champions Tour, where he won eight major titles in six years from 1990 to 1996.


The American holds the record for the most Grand Slams wins, sealing 14 Major titles in his 15-year career.

A former world No1, he spent six consecutive years at the top of the ATP rankings, making him the most successful player of the Open Era (from 1968 onwards).

It was at Wimbledon that 'Pistol Pete' felt most comfortable, winning the All-England Lawn Tennis Club tournament seven times, a record he shares with William Renshaw.

However, Sampras showed his versatility by winning on the hardcourts of the US and Australian Opens, taking those titles five times and two times respectively. His greatest weapon was perhaps his second serve, widely regarded in the game as the best ever. His serve and volley was also suited perfectly to his level of athleticism, foot speed and court coverage.

He was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame last year, having been voted as the greatest player of the Open Era by Tennis magazine in 2005. Roger Federer recently claimed Sampras could walk into a top five place in the world rankings, despite retiring three years ago.


Edison Arantes do Nascimento is rated by many as the best footballer to have ever taken to the pitch; he simply had everything.

As a forward his incredible prolificacy – 1,281 goals are recognised by Fifa – was aided by his supreme technical talent, his exceptional dribbling and passing, his powerful shot and his phenomenal heading ability. A year after being called up to the Brazilian national team, the 17-year-old Santos striker scored a hatrick in the 1958 World Cup semi-final before adding a brace in the final against Sweden to secure the Jules Rimet trophy.

Pele went on to become the only player to be part of three World Cup-winning squads and is the all-time leading goalscorer for his country with 77 strikes in 92 appearances.

Known as 'The King of Football', he was voted by the International Olympic Committee as their 'Athlete of the Century' and is Fifa's ambassador of the world for the sport. While some argue that Diego Maradona was a greater player, Pele was the consummate professional and every bit the inspiration for Brazil that Maradona was for Argentina.


One of the most effectively marketed sportsmen ever, Jordan was the main reason the NBA became so popular throughout the world in the 1980s and 1990s.

He joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984 after excelling at college level in North Carolina and quickly became one of the major stars of the sport due to his prolific scoring.

'His Airness' – nicknamed as such because of his remarkable leaping ability – not only stood out for his game tally, but also built a reputation as one of the best defensive players the game has seen.

He won a trio of successive titles with the Bulls from 1991 to 1993 and came back from a two-year retirement to secure the "three-peat" again between 1996 and 1999. As Jordan got older he moulded his game to stay ahead of his opponents who often tried to physically bully the star.

He won five MVPs and holds the record for the highest career scoring average with 30.12 points. In 1999, the shooting guard was voted as the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century by ESPN.


The American sprinter dominated the 200m and 400m throughout the 1990s, setting world record times of 19:32 secs and 43:18 secs that still stand almost 10 years on. His 42:94 secs split time in the 4x400m relay remains the fastest 400m in history.

Johnson was famed for his unique running style, an upright stance with short steps that defied the perceived wisdom that a high knee lift was required to achieve maximum speed.

His ability to take his events to a new level, without the need for performance enhancing drugs, ranks the Texan as one of the greatest athletes of all time. He is the only male sprinter to have won both the 200m and 400m at the same Olympics, achieving the feat at the 1996 Summer games in Atlanta. He is also the only man to have successfully defended a 400m title, when he did so in his famous Nike gold shoes at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.


The Australian cricketer is the greatest batsman of all time, with a career Test average of 99.94 resulting in many claiming it to be the best ever solo performance in a major sport.

'The Don' enjoyed a meteoric rise from Bush cricket to his country's Test side and took the sport by storm.

During his 20-year career he remained committed to playing attacking and entertaining cricket, being so difficult to play against that England devised the controversial Bodyline bowling tactics to counteract his efficiency in their 1932-1933 Ashes tour of Australia. Bradman was his nation's sporting idol at the height of the Great Depression and in 2001 – 50 years after his retirement – was called the "greatest living Australian" by Priemer John Howard. He captained 'the Invincibles' in 1948, when the Australia side became the first Test side to play a full tour without tasting defeat. Bradman was crucial to that success, hitting the English everywhere to win the Ashes 4-0.


As the official Formula One website states, the German is "statistically the greatest driver the sport has ever seen". Taking a record seven world championships, Schumacher has won the most races, driven the fastest laps, secured the most pole positions, and scored the most points in the history of the lucrative sport.

The former Jordan, Benetton and Ferrari driver went through the entire 2002 season without failing to register a podium finish, the only man to have ever achieved the feat in F1.

Those who pick holes in Schumacher's record, saying his five Ferrari wins were solely because he drove the best car, neglect to remember that he took his first two championships in an inferior Benetton model.

Controversy was never too far from F1's most successful driver, though, as Schumacher was twice involved in collisions that went on to determine the outcome of the World Championship.

He now works as an advisor and specialist test driver for the popular Italian team, but his ability to dominate the sport for most of a decade surely ranks the speedster as one of the greatest sportsmen to have ever graced the planet.


While some would argue that 'Mellow Johnny' – from the French 'Maillot Jaune', meaning 'Yellow Jersey' – was not even the greatest in his sport, it is hard to remain unmoved by Armstrong's unbelievable achievement of seven consecutive Tour De France titles between 1999 and 2005 after battling back from testicular cancer.

His first title was recognised by ABC when he was awarded with their 'Wide World Athlete of the Year' in 1999, and followed it by winning Sports Illustrated's 'Sportsman of the Year' three years later.

After dominating cycling's most prestigious event for a further three seasons, the Australian retired with the record number of wins in 2005. He was also rewarded with the Associated Press 'Male Athlete of the Year' award from 2002- 2005 and scooped three successive ESPN 'Best Male Athlete of the Year' titles from 2003-2006.

Armstrong's ability to succeed in one of sport's most demanding events after life-threatening illness gave inspiration to many and displayed a passion and courage for the sport that makes him a great.

And Armstrong, indeed, raised the profile of a sport that was little known until his era.