Young stars should be careful about which Tiger Woods they wish for

Tiger Woods

By George Willis

It has been nine years since Tiger Woods last won a major championship and four years since he was any real threat to win one.

Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Day and even Dustin Johnson were either not on Tour or the stars they are now. They’re the so-called “young guns” who have maintained interest in the sport while Woods was away battling personal problems and injuries.

Their wins have all been relevant, including Spieth’s record-breaking triumph at the 2015 Masters and Johnson claiming the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont. But if there’s any asterisk that can be attached, it’s that all of their victories have come when Woods was either away from the game or a non-factor.

With Woods looking like he could be a contender at the 2018 Masters, the young guns could get a taste of what Tiger-mania was all about, and his presence should add value to any win they might achieve should they go head-to-head against the 14-time major champion for the coveted green jacket.

“The quote of the year to me has been from David Duval,” two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange said recently. “Some weeks ago he was making the comment that all these young kids and all the good players on Tour now are saying, ‘I wish I would have had some of Tiger in his prime.’ David Duval says, ‘The hell you do.’

Tiger Woods

“But I’m so anxious to see this play out next week … to see if Tiger continues to play well, because he’s in a very comfortable atmosphere at Augusta, and to see how the [players] react to Tiger.”

His counterparts who weren’t around a decade ago have gotten a glimpse this year of what Tiger-mania was like as attendance and TV ratings have soared during his return to form this season. A tie for second at the Valspar Championship followed by a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational has Woods, 42, among the favorites to win what would be a fifth Masters though he hasn’t played in the tournament since 2015. That is sure to make for a different atmosphere around the storied course with Woods again being the focus of attention.

“If Tiger Woods continues to play well, there is a real influence of intimidation out there,” Strange said, “the way he carries himself, the way he acts, the way he plays, and then the aura about him. It’s not just about how he hits the golf ball.

“I think if he continues this trend, I think intimidation is a real thing and we’ll see how they handle it. I’m not going to say they don’t handle it well, but it really does put pressure on the first tee when you’re standing up there against Tiger Woods and you have to play your very, very best to beat this guy. That in itself is a lot pressure.”

Spieth is a three-time major winner and the 2015 Masters champion. Bubba Watson is a two-time Masters champ and recent winner of the WGC Match Play. Thomas won five times last year, including the 2017 PGA Championship, and Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open champion, is the current No. 1-ranked player in the world. They have all become stars, but now they can test their talents against a competitive Woods.

“These guys are all excited about the fact that he’s been out there and he’s starting to play well,” said Andy North, who along with Strange will be part of the ESPN crew broadcasting the Masters. “They want to see if they can beat him, and for some of these guys, they’ve never played with Tiger Woods when he’s playing well. They don’t have any idea how big a circus it is to try to play with him.”

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt added, “None of these guys have ever had to stand toe-to-toe when Tiger is being Tiger, and I think the idea of it is fun for players until they’re in the arena.”

Tiger-mania returns to Augusta this week with the young guns looking to take down the legend.

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