Sport - Jason Cowley tees up

Look on his works, ye golfers, and despair: the Age of the Tiger is upon us!

Nothing exposes inequality of talent more greatly than sport. Sport is all about measurable exceptions, about quantifying ability - about showing who the best is and why and how he or she compares with those who went before. It confirms one of the earliest and most painful lessons of life: that justice is not of this world and that the winner, especially in a time of unfettered capitalism, takes all.

To watch Tiger Woods in action on the final day of the Open Championship at St Andrews was to understand that you were watching the greatest golfer ever to have played the game. St Andrews likes to call itself the home of golf but, to me, it increasingly resembles nothing so much as a well-maintained pitch-and-putt course, cared for by a cabal of grey-haired men, all dressed in the same bland blazers.

That, at least, is what the course has been reduced to by the long hitters of the modern game, with their balloon-headed drivers, laboratory-tested golf balls, computer-modelled swings and greater athleticism.

There are no trees or artificial water hazards on links golf courses - no strategically designed lake or bank of poplar trees flanking a green - nothing much to protect the course from the power of the modern golfer when the wind doesn't blow, as it did not during those four benign days by the sea at St Andrews.

Time and again, Woods rendered the course virtually defenceless by driving straight on or alongside the green of a par four. So complete was his mastery of the course and the more intricate arts of golf - especially chipping and putting - that all he really needed to be carrying in his bag was a driver, a wedge and a putter.

Yet it was thrilling to watch him win all the same, as the confirmation of true talent is always thrilling: look on my works, mere mortal, and despair!

How must it feel to be playing golf in the age of Tiger Woods? Or competing at Wimbledon against Roger Federer? Or riding in the Tour de France against the American ubermensch Lance Armstrong, who is moving inexorably towards his seventh consecutive victory?

There was a telling moment on that final Sunday afternoon at St Andrews. Woods was beginning his round just as his great rival, Phil Mickelson, struggling for form, was completing his. In any other era, Mickelson - a charismatic lefty (I'm not referring to his political affiliations) who has finished second to Woods so often - would be the main attraction, the best player, the man for the majors.

As it is, he has won only one major championship, the 2004 US Masters at Augusta. Woods, who is not yet 30, has won ten, and before he finishes will no doubt have surpassed Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major wins. Mickelson has won as much money as he can ever need, certainly enough to ensure that future generations of Mickelsons can have whatever they want, whenever they want it. He is a smiler and autograph-signer and adored by the American galleries. Is this enough for him?

The greens at St Andrews, so vast and undulating, are unusual in that some of them serve two different holes, for those going out and those coming back, and with two flags in different positions. On the second green, which is also the 17th, chance brought Woods and Mickelson together. The two players are known to dislike each other intensely; their rivalry has curdled what, in different circumstances, might have been a good friendship.

I watched Mickelson watching Woods as the champ prepared to putt. Mickelson seemed mesmerised as he rested on his putter, an expression of wonder and curiosity on his face. Envy as well? I would not like to say. All I know is that if I were Mickelson, I would have wanted to swap places with Woods on that final Sunday at St Andrews, so that I was beginning my round as he was finishing his.

But it was not to be - for Mickelson or any other of Woods's main rivals. For this is the Age of the Tiger. The rest are merely playing catch-up.

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