Tiger more than won?he sent a message

It took most of six months and hundreds of thousands of man-hours of borderline idleness, but 2008 finally produced one of those pure ?sports moments? that fans will think back on a decade from now. Tiger Woods came through in the clutch with a 12-foot lead-tying birdie putt on the 18th hole at the US Open on Sunday night and reminded us why sports matters.

More than simply sending a Nike-branded piece of pockmarked plastic arcing around the outer limits of a PGA-sanctioned black hole, Woods? shot caused something of a distortion in the space-time continuum. Now, every time a U.S. Open is played at Torrey Pines, Tiger?s latest will come back to us in an HDTV time capsule, a moment transmitted to us from beyond the event horizon, like a message-in-a-bottle from Marty McFly or Mr. Spock.

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It was just a putt, and so was no different from any other putt that has ever found the bottom of the tin cup. But golf, perhaps more than any other sport, distills down a week?s worth of makes and mistakes into one moment that might crystallize into a single signature shot.

It is a reaction catalyzed in every case by a kind of greatness that produces Pentecostal fist pumps and open-mouthed shouts that would require an alphabet far beyond that of any known language to write down, yet are simple enough to be understood immediately and completely by everyone present.

No, tongues of fire do not descend on the apostles of athletic exhibition in these moments?if you don?t have a headache but want one, watch one of those post-game interviews where some reporter shoves a microphone into Paul Pierce?s face before he has time to gather himself?but the experience shared between athlete and fan is that of joy.

And joy?aptly described by C.S. Lewis scholar David C. Downing as ?the longing for some lost paradise that is itself a kind of paradise to feel??is a religious kind of experience.

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As much as I wanted to write about the NBA finals this week, I?m glad Tiger stole all my thunder.

Given the amount of money at stake for the league, and given the difficulty the league has had disposing of disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy?s allegations of shadiness in the league?s management of officiating, it?s hard enough for me not to daydream about X-Files conspiracies involving the highest levels of NBA management without circumstances throwing more fuel on the fire.

So if Game 5 had been marred by an obvious officiating controversy, I?d probably have submitted a column four or five times this length and my editor probably would have had to break out a Vulcan Nerve Pinch to keep me from rambling on for another 1,500 words.

And, borrowing a line from George Costanza, there wouldn?t be nearly enough voltage in all the electrical devices in Hillsboro to electroshock me back into coherence after something like that.

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It is in those few pure ?sports moments,? those crystallized signature shots, that made Michael Jordan?s resume the benchmark for what it takes to be called ?greatest ever.?

With the additions to his portfolio over the weekend?his second eagle putt on Saturday was even better than the birdie on 18 on Sunday?Tiger is on the verge of overtaking Jordan. As crazy as it sounds to compare anyone in any sport to MJ, the Woods retirement montage is up to a solid half-dozen highlights that I remember clear as day.

I have MJ down for five (although there are probably at least five more from before his first retirement): the Flu Game during the 1997 final, the winner over Bryon Russell in 1998, that one time he drove the middle and switched hands for the reverse layup, the Shrug and that poster-dunk on Patrick Ewing?s head.

But if we ever get to the point of calling it a tie, Tiger?s superb repertoire of fist pumps gives him a decisive advantage: everything is better with a fist pump.

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