AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods was that larger-than-life figure in a red shirt who was always winning. At least it seemed that way to a growing television audience that included a bunch of kids from all over the world.
Rory McIlroy was one of them. So was Jordan Spieth.
Jason Day was watching in Australia. Hideki Matsuyama was mesmerized in Japan.
If they didn’t want to grow up to be like Tiger, they wanted to beat him. If nothing else, they were inspired by him.
And now they’re here.
This next generation of players is getting plenty of attention for all the right reasons. They’re winning. They are why the talent level seems deeper than ever. They’re why it’s getting harder to win — even for Woods, who effectively trained them.
Nike released a commercial this week, “Ripple.” It features a young McIlroy in Northern Ireland practicing in the dark and in the rain, with images of Woods winning championships as McIlroy grows up. Both are Nike clients, but there could have been other commercials just like it with other players.
Woods has had a massive effect on television ratings, on prize money, on bringing more attention to the sport.
And now we’re seeing his effect on competition.
McIlroy is No. 1 in the world. He is a green jacket away from becoming the sixth player with the career Grand Slam, and the second-youngest at age 25 behind Woods.
“He was the inspiration for us to go out and try to be the best that we could be,” McIlroy said. “You get a lot guys that are my age and they’d say the same thing. He was a hero to us growing up, and that’s why you have so many guys in their early 20s that are so good right now.”
Spieth is No. 4 in the world. He won his first PGA Tour event at 19. He played in the last group at the Masters at 20. He has four victories worldwide at age 21.
There are seven players 27 or younger who are among the top 20 players in the world. Day is the oldest at 27.
“He was always my hero growing up and watching him,” Day said. “Back then we had antennas and a little turn-knob TV. We only had four or five channels back home. The only time I could get to watch him was when he played major championships. And the majority of time he was playing in those tournaments when he was in his peak and he was dominating.
“I wanted to be like that, yes,” Day said. “I wanted to go out there and play like he did.”
Woods took fitness to another level, and over time he looked more like a strong safety in the NFL than a golfer. McIlroy has become addicted to the gym with a tailored workout routine that has changed his body. He recently was on the cover of a men’s health magazine.
Just about everyone has made fitness a central part of their regimen.
Every generation brings a new set of stars. Mark O’Meara, Scott Hoch, John Cook and Hal Sutton in the early 1980s. Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard a decade later. Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, all born in 1980.
“There seems like a bit more this time. This one is a serious change,” Els said. “They’re learning how to win.”
Woods was standing on a tee at Sherwood Country Club a few years ago when he turned to watch Dustin Johnson smash a drive down a par 5. Woods said he couldn’t keep up with that kind of length, and then he added, “There are a lot more guys like him.”
They are not just longer off the tee. They are more polished in their instruction, more devoted to their fitness. Not since 1994 has it taken this long into a PGA Tour season for someone to be a multiple winner. Maybe that’s not an accident.