The Ernie and Bert of world-class athletes

With 22 major tournament victories between them, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods share something unique: They are the most dominating athletes of their generation and can each be considered one of the best ever to play their games. The two’s much publicized budding friendship therefore seems to make sense.

Except for a very limited group of other major sports personalities, Federer is the only person on the planet who can really understand the essence of what makes Woods so dominant. Similarly, Woods is the only other person out there who can relate to closing an icy death grip around the neck of a hopeless Sunday opponent. Have their lives been necessarily lonely without someone who can fully understand them? Probably not. But this friendship must provide something very fulfilling to both men.

Both men have significant others. Both have abundant Nike endorsements. Both shoot steely glances at cameramen and competitors alike as they close out matches and tournaments with running cross-court winners or clutch, double-breaking 20-footers. But while they are very similar, they are not identical.

Two weeks ago, on a Saturday at Doral, Tiger Woods had a relatively comfortable lead when he made the turn. There were then a few times on the back nine when he stood on the tee and unleashed massive swings, displaying both his brute strength and his willingness to take risks. On more than one occasion, he missed his shot badly. Each time, Tiger scrambled to save par. For him, golf sometimes seems a little boring. If he is not down a stroke with three to play, from time to time Tiger appears impatient.

He is a bit of a gambler, but not as much as the sometimes-foolish Phil Mickleson and not enough to risk Sunday collapses. Tiger is 38-3 on the PGA tour, leading for 54 holes. Moreover, he has never lost a tournament in which he has entered Sunday with a two-shot lead or better.

Federer is not as much of a risk taker. He projects a more stoic demeanor than does the passionate Woods. Down a set in the 2004 Wimbledon finals, Federer waited out a long rain delay and a pesky Andy Roddick to win in four sets. His reaction upon winning was utter jubilation: He collapsed instantly to his knees, threw his hands to the sky and began to cry. And yet, because it seemed so contrary to the way he had behaved through the entire match — rarely having shown any emotion — it was almost hard to believe.

With a one-shot lead at the 2005 Masters, facing a tough up-and-down to save par, Woods made what was likely the most famous shot of his career — a 30-foot birdie chip from the left side of the 16th green at Augusta, a shot that Woods ushered home with his renowned fist pump, and one that had millions of Americans gasping for air as the ball trickled down the hill and finally into the cup.

Like most things, this chip is remembered most for its result. But think about what went into it: the absolute mastery of reading greens, the audacity to even dream up such a shot and the confidence to trust his read.

Golf and tennis are obviously very different. Roger Federer has just a fraction of a second to plan his next maneuver. At the same time, the creative understanding of different speeds and spins that makes Roger so dominant comes from the same understanding and confidence that allowed Tiger to make his chip.

Tiger’s wife, Elin Nordegren, is admittedly a fox, but she can’t possibly understand what it’s like to stand on the 18th fairway at Augusta with a Masters championship in sight. But maybe Federer, who has stood on Centre Court at Wimbeldon with match point on his racquet, can. Maybe the feel of the closely trimmed Bermuda grass in Georgia mirrors that of the worn-down lawns outside of London. Maybe the excitement of burying your final putt is like ripping that forehand up the line and then collapsing to the ground.

Maybe Woods, who won his first Masters at the age of 21, can sit down and actually have a candid conversation with Federer about the Swissman’s fourth-round victory over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, a ceremonial passing of the torch. Woods knows the feeling of performing beyond your years, and the nerves, pressures and excitement included therein. And Federer now knows what it’s like to have won every tournament expected of you.

Tiger and Roger probably don’t share completely compatible personalities — in fact, I’d suggest that they seem quite different. But if friendships are based on an understanding of what makes your companion tick inside, than these two athletes may have finally found their soulmates.

Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Tuesdays.

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