AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — All three marveled at Tiger Woods as youngsters, then grew up and staked their own place in the game.
Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth are stars at every tour stop, ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the world. But this week at the Masters brings an eerily familiar sight.
Though the game’s once most-dominating player sits well below the trio — at 103rd in those same rankings — they’re all looking up at Tiger Woods again.
“I know he wants to make another run at us young guns. And some of the older guys,” Thomas said, without naming names, “have been winning lately, so I guess we need to try to get our little streak back.
“But it’s great for golf, great for him and I’d cherish the opportunity to be potentially going down the stretch with him to win a tournament or a major, so who knows?” he added.
Much has been made of the stories passed on from their elders, how unbeatable Woods was coming down the stretch.
“Anybody that played against him,” said Thomas, three weeks shy of his 25th birthday, “says you don’t want that.”
Rahm had no problem relating.
His first memory of the Masters was in 2005, watching as a 10-year-old in Barrika, Spain. Because of the time difference, his parents taped the final round and sent him to bed. When he turned the TV on that Monday morning, what he saw was pure magic: Woods’ captivating chip-in at No. 16, followed by a win over Chris DiMarco in a playoff.
“I think he’s been an idol to all of us, right?” Rahm said. “If you don’t use Tiger Woods as a reference in golf, I mean, it’s pretty silly not to do it.”
He wasn’t alone. Rahm recalled standing on the practice range earlier in the week when Woods showed up.
“Everybody stood up and started clapping,” he said. “It doesn’t happen for anybody else.”
Spieth is by far the most accomplished golfer of his generation, a three-time major winner who won’t turn 25 until late July. Yet he’s as susceptible to rubber-necking as anyone when it comes to Woods.
“The addition of Tiger being healthy and playing well, no matter what else happened, was probably going to make it as anticipated as any,” he said.
Spieth ticked off a list of other contenders who’ve won recently or rounding into top form: Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Thomas and Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1.
“There’s just a lot of guys playing really good golf . that, when it’s on the biggest stage in our sport, I think that creates that kind of anticipation,” he said.
Like Thomas, Spieth and Rahm have heard the warnings from guys like Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh that as formidable as Woods looked on the small screen, playing against him in person was even more daunting.
“To be honest,” Rahm said, “I want and I don’t want him to get back to the level he was when he was playing great. I want him to, because it would be great to see it again; I don’t want him to, because he will be winning 30 percent of the tournaments he plays, which gives a lot less room for the rest of us to win.”
In Spieth’s case, he’s almost as worried about the verbal beating he’d take at Woods’ hands if ever got back to the top of the game as he is about losing to him on the golf course. As a member of the U.S. team in the Presidents Cup, he recalled how Mickelson and Woods, serving as an assistant captain, took turns giving the younger players a hard time.
“Everything they do is in good fun and it’s not just to each other,” Spieth recalled. “And nobody really dares go at either one of them, because we know they’ve got beef on us, and accolades that we can only dream of accomplishing.”
And yet, like Woods and all the great golfers of that generation, the young guns are driven by the same championship ethos: that to be the best, you have to beat the best.
And no target is more tantalizing than Woods once again playing at his best.
“All I’ve done is watched and enjoyed it,” Thomas said.
“Maybe I wouldn’t enjoy it so much if I was on the other end, but I guess we’ll never know,” he couldn’t resist adding mischievously, “or maybe I will.”
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(AP Photo/Doug Ferguson & AP Photo/Gregory Bull)