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Tennis vs Golf

Which Sport is Tougher?

( Photo credit: Art Seitz ©2009 )

    When Tiger Woods recently said Roger Federer "is probably the best athlete on the planet," I began to believe tennis finally got the respect it deserved − from a golfer. Tennis had been dismissed in America as a "sissy sport" for its first 75 years, even by golfers such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. After tennis maven Ted Tinling, a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Army Intelligence Corps in 1943, asked permission to stage an exhibition match for the Red Cross in Algiers, Gen. Eisenhower fired back a terse memo: "No, this is a man's war and tennis is a woman's game." Never mind that tennis, unlike golf, had by then diverged from its effete, country club origins and become a grueling, dynamic sport dominated by public parks players like Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge and Bobby Riggs.

Since that period tennis champions Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf, Justine Henin and Serena Williams have ranked among the world's elite athletes. In France at the 1979 European Superstars competition, a medley of athletic events staged as a television program, Borg beat an Olympic medal-winning hurdler, while capturing six of the eight events. In 2002 Federer, Sweden's Thomas Johansson and several other ATP players took on a National Hockey League team during the Canadian Open in Toronto and lost only 7-5. "Their anticipation was unreal," said Nick Kypreos, the leading scorer in the game and one of the extremely impressed hockey players.

When the incomparable Michael Jordan was asked which female athlete he most admired, he tellingly replied, "Tennis is a lot like basketball in physical terms, and Chris Evert did everything with class." As for golf, Jordan, a recreational player himself, contended, "You golfers may make a lot of money, but you're a long way from being athletes."

The tennis vs. golf debate was renewed when the Feb. 5, 2007 Sports Illustrated ran a point-counterpoint piece titled: "Kings of the Mountain − Roger Federer and Tiger Woods are good pals who won't argue about who's the most dominant athlete around. But Two SI writers will."  The golf advocate maintained Woods amassed a superior record against much stouter competition and thus is "the best athlete of his generation." His tennis counterpart pointed out that Federer won 10 of the last 15 Grand Slam events and displays his genius in a game that demands a full range of physical skills. The tennis proponent also slipped in this zinger: "Once in a while, you'll actually hear people wonder if golf is a sport."

People should wonder. If you can't make a case that golf actually is a bona-fide sport requiring true athleticism rather than merely a competition like croquet, then there is no debate.  After all, you wouldn't compare the preeminent yachtsmen or bowlers with the greatest football or baseball players. To prove this self-evident assertion, let's analyze the criteria for athleticism and find out how tennis and golf compare to each other.

Physical Fitness — Tennis players must have exceptional cardiovascular fitness or face severe consequences when competing against opponents who do. A 1986 survey of 126 men touring pros revealed an extremely low average body-fat percentage of 6.4. That was better than the measurements of pro basketball players (8.9 percent), pro baseball players (12.6 percent), and pro football linemen (15.6 percent). With both shot and foot speed faster today, there is every reason to believe men tennis players are even fitter. And the women, especially the supremely dedicated Russians, appear leaner and better-conditioned than ever.

What about golfers? Veteran golf pro Bob Goalby once conceded: "Golfers aren't athletes.  A golfer doesn't have to be in shape to do anything but hit a golf ball. I think an athlete should be able to run. The pro golfer is not generally in great physical shape."

Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 major titles make him arguably the greatest golfer in history, looked as much as 25 pounds overweight during his prime.  John Daly, the 1991 PGA and 1995 British Open champion, is obese as was Craig "The Walrus" Stadler, who at 5'10" and 250 pounds, still earned more than $10 million. Chris Patton, even fatter at 6'1" and 300 pounds, captured the 1989 U.S. Amateur title. Billy Casper and Lee Trevino also lost the battle of the bulge but won major titles. At the 2007 U.S. Open Championship, Angel Cabrera, a beer-bellied, cigarette-smoking Argentine, triumphed. Massive Meg Mallon, who notched 18 career victories, including two U.S. Women's Open titles, and ranks No. 5 on the career money list, proves that a lean and sleek body isn't required to walk, stroke and win in golf. If these hefty hitters ever tried to play pro tennis, they'd become exhausted, ill or injured after a few games.

Hand-Eye and Foot-Eye Coordination — World-class tennis requires superb hand-eye coordination to hit a moving ball with varying amounts of oncoming speed and spin that is further affected by other variables such as the wind and at times unpredictable bounces on grass and clay courts.  Returning a bullet serve of more than 120 miles per hour is nearly as challenging as hitting a Major League baseball pitch − often called the most difficult thing to do in sports − and most tennis shots are hit on the run or the dead run.  Arthur Ashe, in his 1981 book, Off the Court, stressed, "Foot-and-eye coordination is more important in tennis than hand-eye coordination…. It's the great feet that win Grand Slam titles."  Contrast these great demands with pro golf, where a stationary person only has to swing at a stationary object about 70 times over five hours.        

Acceleration and Speed — If you can't get to the ball, you can't hit it.  Every tennis champion − except for Lindsay Davenport, a phenomenal striker of the ball − has displayed excellent court coverage.  "The first two steps taken toward a tennis ball usually determine whether or not the ball will be reached, and therefore instantaneous speed, or explosiveness, is much more important in tennis than either aerobic or anaerobic power," pointed out Dr. Robert Arnot and Charles Gaines in their 1984 book, SportSelection.  Borg, Michael Chang, Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal, Federer, Graf, Navratilova and Henin possess not only extraordinary speed and acceleration but also the related movement skills of agility, recovery and leaping.  None of these intrinsic athletic abilities are needed in golf.  David Duval, the world's No. 1 golfer in 1999, admitted, "I would like to think of myself as an athlete first, but I don't want to do a disservice to the real ones."

In 1996 former NBA standout John Lucas, a college tennis All-American and later a World TeamTennis player, told Tennis magazine that Chang could have been "an unbelievable defensive guard in basketball."  Lucas rated Jordan, David Thompson, Dennis Rodman, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors as the top five athletes he ever saw, coached or competed against, saying "They all are absolutely in the same class."

Reflexes and Touch — Lightning-fast hand reflexes are required for skillful volleying, especially in net duels involving all four players in doubles.  "A good doubles match can be one of the fastest and most exciting of all sports events," all-time doubles great John Newcombe told World Tennis magazine in 1977.  Hand speed, split-second reactions, and the concomitant quick decision-making of any kind are never needed in golf. 

Subtle touch is another valuable athletic ability involving hands, and gifted players produce dazzling drop shots, drop volleys and lob volleys.  Touch does play a key role in golf when putting and hitting irons to the greens, but, importantly, it's never achieved against a fast-moving ball and on the run.

Strength and Stamina — Physical strength counts for a lot on every shot in tennis, especially serves and smashes, except for lobs and finesse shots.  Many players pump iron to gain the necessary strength to generate power and handle opponents' power.  While super-strong Andy Roddick holds the fastest-serve record with an incredible 155-mph rocket, women also have embraced strength as never before.  In 2004, 151 women whacked serves of 100 mph or more, and 58 blasted serves of 110 mph or more.  The sheer power of tennis today impresses even casual followers. When an aide introduced Federer to Pope Benedict XVI last year, the pontiff said, "Tennis is a powerful sport." 

Andre Agassi, who packed 174 pounds on his muscular 5'11" frame, was renowned for a brutal training regimen devised by conditioning coach Gil Reyes. Agassi could bench press an amazing 315 pounds. Some golfers, such as Tiger Woods, at least appear in tip-top shape, and the driving distance on the pro golf tours has steadily increased to the point where some players regularly drive more than 300 yards.

However, imagine sprinting for and pounding balls for three, four or even five hours and broiling under a 90-degree sun without any substitutes or halftimes, and you get some sense of how much stamina tennis requires. That tennis often becomes a "survival of the fittest" test (a record eight men retired due to illness and injury at the 2006 French Open) recently prompted the ATP Tour to try to abolish best-of-five-set finals at Masters Series tournaments. 

Whether "golf is a good walk spoiled," as Mark Twain quipped, is debatable. What's not debatable is that walking 18 holes with prolonged rest breaks over five hours is minimal exercise. And consider this: a golf swing takes 1 to 1.5 seconds, and the actual motion in an entire round totals 1.5 minutes. No wonder the Journal of New England Medicine magazine in 2001 reported that golf has "the exercise co-efficient of gardening." Ironically, spectators who follow a particular foursome for a round wind up with as much exercise as their favorite players.

Mastering Technique — Nicklaus, a tennis lover who has three grass courts and a clay court at his North Palm Beach, Florida, estate, once acknowledged that golf is easier because you have basically only one swing, aside from putting. In sharp contrast, tennis ranks as one of the most difficult sports to learn and master because of its many different swings. 

A typical young player today has a semi-Western topspin forehand and changes his grip and swing for a two-handed backhand and changes it again to a Continental grip to hit serves and volleys, which require completely different technique. Supplementary shots such as smashes, lobs, and drop shots entail more muscle memory. Several variations on all these shots, such as service returns, passing shots, kick serves, approach shots, drop volleys, etc., are required for a complete, all-court game. Correct stroke technique still won't guarantee topnotch shots.  "By far the greatest majority of errors originate through incorrect footwork," wrote Joy and Tony Mottram in Modern Lawn Tennis.

     Golf pros, though, must master technique for 14 different clubs with tiny "sweet spots" to control small balls on an endlessly diverse array of challenging fairways, fiendish roughs, unforgiving sand traps, and tricky greens in changing weather conditions. "A tennis ball is on the strings for 4 milliseconds. A golf ball is on the club face for one half of a millisecond," pointed out Vic Braden, a noted sports science researcher and author of several tennis books, in Inside Tennis magazine in 1987. "We brought some of the best golfers to our center, like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, and shot them at 22,000 frames per second. We found that the slightest, barely visible turn of the club face would have dramatic effects on the golf ball. In tennis, you have about a 19-degree range in which you can hit a ball and at least keep it in the court. But in golf, less than one degree of error means that you're in the trees."

The Mental Game — Golfers may concede tennis is more athletic and physical, but they'll passionately maintain that nothing in sports is more terrifying than standing over a three-foot putt with $100,000, or even a $20 hacker's bet, on the line.  But is golf a tough sport mentally?  Tougher than tennis?

Let's start with the various arguments about tournament rules and formats. Golfers aver that they have no chance for redemption following a disastrous shot into a pond, while tennis

players repeatedly take second serve "mulligans," no matter how atrocious their first serves.  Imagine the almost unbearable pressure, they insist, if you know that just one errant shot can turn what looked like an easy par-5 hole into a nightmarish quadruple bogie 9 that ruins your round and perhaps even your entire tournament. Tennis aficionados reply that, except for a first serve fault, every other bad shot during a vital game or on a big point − especially match point, set point or game point − can prove extremely costly. And tennis' clever scoring system, featuring deuce, ad-in and ad-out, ensures plenty of high-pressure, high-stakes points throughout the match.

Although golfers must make the cut, which the elite do almost all the time, a mediocre round allows them to muddle on.  However, mediocrity often spells defeat and thus elimination in any round on the extremely talent-deep ATP and WTA Tours where upsets abound.  If players don't bring their A games, they could easily lose in an hour or two.  When that happens, tennis players often do something relaxing, like golf.

Ah, but golfers counter that nothing could be more treacherous than trying to conquer not only a devilish course, but also 100 players.  Under that absurd numbers criterion, the Boston Marathon with 20,000 runners (albeit all but a few are distant finishers) would top the "toughest competition" category.  Sure, Tiger and Phil and Annika and Karrie must score better than all the other golfers, but they rarely face them directly.

"I may go out and shoot a 66.  But, it doesn't prevent you from going out and shooting a 65," rightly asserts Charlie Pasarell, the Indian Wells tournament director and No. 1-ranked American in 1967, in the Los Angeles Times.  "In fact, you may not even know that I've shot a 66.  You never have that real, direct head-on competition.  However, in tennis, if I've hit a good tennis shot against you, I've probably put you in a defensive mode, and chances are, you will not hit a good shot but will probably hit a weaker shot.
"Hogan never really beats Snead, Nicklaus doesn't beat Palmer," argues Pasarell.  "But, in tennis, Lendl beats McEnroe. Laver beats the world."

Agreeing with that analysis, Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 Masters and 1984 U.S. Open champion, said: "To me, tennis is the most impressive sport. In golf, you hit your best shot and you can brag about it. In tennis, you hit your best shot and some little [expletive deleted] is on the other side hitting it back to you."

Other golfers fire back that on occasion their game also showcases head-to-head competition: match play. But there's something embarrassing worth mentioning about that. When the going gets tough, their "Tiger" performs more like a pussycat. At the PGA's Match-Play Championships − where 64 leading players compete in a single-elimination draw − Tiger has won only twice in eight tries and hasn't even reached the quarterfinals during the last three years.  Although Tiger can brag about his 10-1 PGA Tour record in tournament playoffs, he owns a dismal 10-13-2 career match play record in the prestigious Ryder Cup. 

In contrast, The Great Ones in tennis shrug off and even thrive on mano a mano pressure.  Federer has won nine of his first 10 Grand Slam finals, while Sampras captured 14 of 18 major finals during his incomparable career. The Swiss superstar also boasts an astounding, and probably unbreakable, record of 24 straight victories in tournaments finals, doubling the previous record of 12 shared by Borg and McEnroe. Handling the terrific pressure from hyper-patriotic Germans, Boris Becker racked up a sensational 38-3 singles record in Davis Cup, while Navratilova was a perfect 15-0 and Evert 40-2 in Fed Cup singles. When it matters most, tennis champions often show poise, grit and courage to prevail against their toughest rivals.

Finally, Dr. James E. Loehr, the author of 14 books including Mental Toughness Training for Sports, surveyed 43 sports in 1989, to measure their physical/mental/emotional demand factors.  Loehr used 25 criteria, such as aerobic demands, real physical opponent, no coaching, multiple competitors in a single day, no clock, one-on-one competition, opportunities for trash talking and gamesmanship, ranking system (local, regional, national), no time-outs/no substitutions, and fierce personal rivalries. Tennis placed an impressive No. 2 with 101 points, considerably ahead of golf which had 85 points.

Sports Switchers — No world-class golfer has ever taken up tennis and developed into a world-class player. Nor come even close to that. Of course, since leading golfers can often play their leisurely pastime at a relatively high level into their 40s or even 50s (Nicklaus finished an amazing 6th at the 1998 Masters at age 58), they have little incentive to try more demanding sports. Still, it's noteworthy that a few former tennis stars and lesser lights have excelled, and usually rather quickly, at golf.

Ellsworth Vines, the most successful tennis/golfer, won the 1931 and '32 U.S. Championships and 1932 Wimbledon and retired from competitive tennis in 1939 and became a golf pro. Vines twice finished in the top 10 in annual money earnings during the era of Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. The lanky Southern Californian reached the semifinals of the 1951 PGA Championship and once beat the legendary Hogan in a playoff. 

Mary K. Browne, an American who collected 13 Grand Slam titles from 1912 to 1926, also
transferred her athletic talent to golf. In one of the most remarkable feats in women's sports history, Browne lost in the 1924 U.S. semifinal to Helen Wills in three sets, and three weeks later she upset the renowned Glenna Collett Vare to make the U.S. Women's Golf Championships final.

Althea Gibson, who broke the color barrier in tennis and won two Wimbledons, two U.S. and a French crown in the late 1950s, belatedly turned to golf in her 30s and became the first black woman on the LPGA tour. She played in 171 tournaments from 1963 to 1977 without winning a title, though she did set a course-record 68 in 1966 at Pleasant Valley in Sutton, Massachusetts.

"Time ran out on her," Kathy Whitworth, the grande dame of women's golf champions, told the Boston Sunday Globe in 2001. "There's no question she would have been one of the greats otherwise. Absolutely no question."

Scott Draper, a gifted Australian serve-volleyer with wins over Agassi, Jim Courier, Becker (on grass) and Patrick Rafter (on grass), retired from pro tennis in 2005.  Bulletin: this February Draper, 32, shot a final-round 7-under-par 65 to capture the New South Wales PGA Championship by one stroke for his first pro golf victory. It moves past the improbable to near the impossible to believe that a 32-year-old, former top 50-ranked golf pro could trade his clubs for a racket and two years later win an equivalent event on the pro tennis tour.

Could Fred Couples beat Sampras?  Get a set or even a couple games off him? It's inconceivable. The modest Sampras likes to downplay his golf prowess, but he won a driving contest at a pro-celebrity tournament in 1997 with a 332-yard monster drive. When tour standout Couples golfed with "Pistol Pete," an 8-handicap golfer in 1999, the tennis guy won. "He played better than I did," confided Couples.

Golf is obviously not on an athletic par with tennis. But, that settled, why should it even matter to golf and tennis lovers? As the famous Latin maxim advises: "De gustibus non est disputandum" − "There is no disputing about tastes."

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