Young Challengers Who Idolize Woods Now Challenge Him at the Masters
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
AUGUSTA, Ga., April 7 -- When Tiger Woods tees off Thursday in his 15th Masters -- no, that's not a misprint, and yes, you're exactly that old -- he will do so with men who are his 30-something contemporaries: Stewart Cink, whose college years at Georgia Tech overlapped Woods's at Stanford; and Jeev Milkha Singh, an Indian who has won tournaments the world over. When Woods's group departs down the hill and into the first fairway at Augusta National Golf Club, much of the gallery will leave with it, craning necks to perhaps catch a glimpse of Woods's pursuit of a fifth Masters title.
Eleven minutes after Woods's group, though, comes a threesome that, by no fault of its own, helps define Woods at this point in his career. When Woods unforgettably won his first Masters, back in 1997, Anthony Kim was 11, Rory McIlroy 7, Ryo Ishikawa all of 5. And though all three up-and-comers are appearing in their first Masters, they represent a generation that has not previously existed: one that grew up watching Woods on television rather than competing against him on tour.
"Tiger was the guy," Kim said, "who made golf cool."
Kim's word choice is revealing: Woods no longer has to be the guy who makes golf cool. At 33, Woods long ago crossed the bridge from being established among his peers to being revered by those who would follow. And now, just as Woods is coming back from the first major physical adversity of his career -- reconstructive knee surgery, which cost him the second half of last season and the first two months of this one -- here comes a new group of players who have been weaned on his still-evolving legacy, those who hung his poster on their bedroom walls and honestly don't remember the PGA Tour before Woods arrived.
"I could probably tell you every shot that Tiger hit" at the 1997 Masters, said McIlroy, the 19-year-old from Northern Ireland who can spew forth a litany of Tiger trivia, much like a kid who memorized the minuscule numbers on the back of his hero's baseball card.
Perhaps for the first time at a major, Woods represents nearly the median of the field; he is older than 42 of the 95 other players here. That group includes the threesome that will follow him as the last group on the course Thursday: Kim, a 23-year-old American with South Korean parents who has already won on the PGA Tour; McIlroy, a burgeoning talent who is threatening to do so at any moment; and Ishikawa, who is now 17, but who two years ago became the youngest player to win an event on the Japanese tour.
It also includes the last two Masters champions, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson. It includes, too, Danny Lee, a Korean-born New Zealander who won the U.S. Amateur last year, supplanting Woods as the tournament's youngest champion. Lee has already won on the European tour, and he doesn't turn 19 until July.
"He was my idol when I first started to play golf, and he's still my idol," Lee said Tuesday. "He's kind of like a golf hero."
Such words make sense for a teenager. But much is expected of Lee and his peers. Johnny Miller, the two-time major champion who is now an NBC commentator, suggested Lee's game is developed enough to contend this week. (His nerves, Lee admitted, might be another matter. "I'm having a stomachache," he said.)
McIlroy, Woods said, "has the talent" to contend right now. Camilo Villegas, a 27-year-old Colombian who watched Woods's 1997 Masters title on television, captured the attitude of this ambitious group when he said Tuesday, "For me to tell you, 'Oh, I want to make the cut, and I want do this or to do that,' it would be lying."
The message: They want to win. If that's not realistic this week, then it is, they believe, in the very near future.
"It's just a matter of time before these guys gain experience in major championships," Woods said. "That's something that they have not done yet. Once you start getting a taste of it, start getting a feel for it, it's just a matter of time."
Over the course of his career -- and Woods smiled, rolled his eyes and rocked his head back when he was reminded how many Masters he has played in -- there has been much discussion about how his mere presence affects others in a given field. The generation that will compete with Woods over the next dozen years -- a stretch during which Woods will reach his mid-40s -- watched that dynamic from afar, and perhaps learned from it.
"The guys that are playing in Tiger's era, I've seen them do all these things and play in the same tournaments as him, and maybe thought this guy is almost unbeatable," McIlroy said. "Where, you know, the likes of myself and Danny and Ryo have seen him on TV. We can relate to him, in a way, especially that first Masters. He was only 21, and you could sort of relate to someone that age."
Still, Woods will concede nothing this week, this year or for the foreseeable future. Thursday morning, Arnold Palmer, the 79-year-old legend who won the Masters four times, will start the tournament with a ceremonial drive. Woods, whose stature in golf and status in life is so different than in 1997, won't exactly be there to join him.
"I'm not teeing off yet on the first hole to start this thing," he said.