My father, Charles Krauthammer, was a lover of sports. Not just for the sheer joy of the games themselves, but for what they revealed about an essential aspect of the human experience: our capacity and drive to achieve excellence.
To my father’s eyes, our great feats of athletic genius — and likewise those of artistic and intellectual genius — brought us closer to something ineffable and transcendent, a perfection just beyond the reach of human hands but close enough to spark our wonder and appreciation for the truly sublime.
“I love to see anything done beautifully,” he once said, “whether it is ballet or music or baseball or walking the four-inch balance beam in gymnastics.”
In his recently published posthumous collection, "The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors," my father dedicated an entire chapter to the “contests,” as he described them, that we mortals have devised for ourselves over the millennia to measure and test our abilities — from baseball and basketball and boxing to chess and sailing and golf.
Years ago, at the height of Tiger Woods’ career, my father wrote an essay extolling the golfer’s achievements and the example he provided for all of us to better understand our own appreciation for human greatness. And as my father also wrote about in his books, there was nothing he loved more than a great comeback story. I have no doubt he would have thrilled at Woods’ own comeback story and his victory at this year’s Masters Tournament.
— Daniel Krauthammer
The Greatness Gap
By Charles Krauthammer | July 1, 2002
There is excellence, and there is greatness — cosmic, transcendent, Einsteinian. We know it when we see it, we think. But how to measure it? Among Tiger Woods’ varied contributions to contemporary American life is that he shows us how.
As just demonstrated yet again at the US Open, Woods is the greatest golfer who ever lived. How do we know? You could try Method 1: Compare him directly with the former greatest golfer, Jack Nicklaus. For example, take their total scores in their first 22 major championships (of which Nicklaus won seven, Woods eight). Nicklaus was 40 strokes over par; Tiger was 81 under — an astonishing 121 strokes better. But that is not the right way to compare. You cannot compare greatness directly across the ages. There are so many intervening variables: changes in technology, training, terrain, equipment and often rules and customs.
How then do we determine who is greatest? Method 2: the Gap. Situate each among his contemporaries. Who towers? Who is, like the US today, a hyperpower with no second in sight? The mark of true transcendence is running alone. Nicklaus was great, but he ran with peers: Palmer, Player, Watson. Tiger has none. Of the past 11 majors, Woods has won seven. That means whenever and wherever the greatest players in the world gather, Woods wins twice and the third trophy is distributed among the next, oh, 150.
In 2000-01, Woods won four majors in a row. The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell found that if you take these four and add the 2001 Players Championship (considered the next most important tournament), Tiger shot a cumulative 1,357 strokes — 55 strokes better than the next guy.
To find true greatness, you must apply the “next guy” test. Then the clouds part and the deities appear. In 1921 Babe Ruth hit 59 home runs. The next four hit 24, 24, 23 and 23. Ruth alone hit more home runs than half the teams in the major leagues.
In the 1981-82 season, Wayne Gretzky scored 212 points. The next two guys scored 147 and 139. Not for nothing had he been known as the Great One — since age nine.
Gaps like these are as rare as the gods that produce them. By 1968, no one had ever long-jumped more than 27 ft. 4¾ in. In the Mexico City Olympics that year, Bob Beamon jumped 29 ft. 2½ in. — this in a sport in which records are broken by increments of a few inches, sometimes fractions. (Yes, the air is thin in Mexico City, but it was a legal jump and the record stood for an astonishing 23 years.)
In physics, a quantum leap means jumping to a higher level without ever stopping — indeed, without even traveling through — anywhere in between. In our ordinary understanding of things, that is impossible. In sports, it defines greatness.
Not only did Michael Jordan play a game of basketball so beautiful that it defied physics, but he racked up numbers that put him in a league of his own. Jordan has averaged 31 points a game, a huge gap over the (future) Hall of Famers he played against (e.g., Karl Malone, 25.7; Charles Barkley, 22.1).
The most striking visual representation of the Gap is the photograph of Secretariat crossing the finish line at the Belmont Stakes, 31(!) lengths ahead of the next horse. You can barely see the others — the fastest horses in the world, mind you — in the distance.
In 1971, Bobby Fischer played World Championship elimination rounds against the best players on the planet. These were open-ended matches that finished only when one player had won six games. Such matches could take months, because great chess masters are so evenly matched that 80 percent of tournament games end in draws. Victories come at rare intervals; six wins can take forever. Not this time. Fischer conducted a campaign unrivaled since Scipio Africanus leveled Carthage. He beat two challengers six games in a row, which, combined with wins before and after, produced a streak of 20 straight victories against the very best — something never seen before and likely never to be seen again.
That’s a Gap. To enter the pantheon — any pantheon — you’ve got to be so far above and beyond your contemporaries that it is said of you, as Jack Nicklaus once said of Tiger Woods, “He’s playing a game I’m not familiar with.”
The biologist and philosopher Lewis Thomas was asked what record of human achievements he would launch into space to be discovered one day by some transgalactic civilization. A continual broadcast of Bach would do, Thomas suggested, though “that would be boasting.”
Why not make it a music video? A Bach fugue over Tiger hitting those miraculous irons from the deep rough onto the greens at Bethpage Black. Nah. The aliens will think we did it all with computer graphics.
Reprinted from Charles Krauthammer’s posthumous book, "The Point of it All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors,” with an original introduction by Daniel Krauthammer, who is the editor of the book. Copyright © 2018 by Charles Krauthammer. Published by Crown Forum, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.