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No more fear factor

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Tiger Woods mercilessly choked new growth.

He towered so formidably over the game that young talent couldn’t blossom in his shadow. His beat downs stunted youthful ambition before it could threaten his dominion.

“Tiger destroyed a lot of players, confidence wise,” says Butch Harmon, Woods’ former swing coach.

It’s probably no coincidence that a new wave of youth is on the rise as Woods slumps.

The irony is that Woods inspired this new generation, and now he’s doing the kids a large favor by getting out of their way so they have room to grow.

The PGA Championship begins Thursday with so many gifted young players aiming for the big prize at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Matteo Manassero and Ryo Ishikawa don’t have clear paths to superstardom, but they have the advantage a generation didn’t have a decade ago. They have a path unblocked by Woods.

“Is it easier for young guys now that Tiger isn’t sucking up all the oxygen?” Stewart Cink said. “In a way it is, because it gives more young players an opportunity to show their stuff. He isn’t winning as much. He isn’t hogging all the attention, all the press. There’s room right now for a Rory McIlroy or Rickie Fowler to emerge and become a superstar. These guys were going to be good anyway, but in Tiger’s absence . . .”

In Tiger’s absence, there’s a chance to make it happen faster.

“These kids don’t have the fear of Tiger because they aren’t getting their brains beat in by Tiger,” Harmon said. “They are fearless.

“It’s unbelievable how good they are, and they’re only going to get better.”

The game’s at pivotal turning point with Woods off his form, with a changing of the guard at hand. The wonderful question looming over all of it is whether Woods regains his form, whether he bounces back to make these kids measure themselves against the guy they grew up idolizing.

If Tiger finds his form, the game could enjoy another terrific jolt seeing him take on his litter.

These kids weren’t just inspired watching Woods beat down all his peers. They dreamed of beating Woods themselves.

Growing up in Northern Ireland, McIlroy was 7 years old when Woods won his first major in a 12-shot runaway at the Masters. McIlroy said as a boy he imagined duels with Woods, imagined having putts to beat Woods in the U.S. Open or Masters.

McIlroy imagined measuring himself against Woods. He was asked Wednesday if he still imagines it.

“Tiger didn’t give anyone a chance 10 years ago,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, it would be great to measure yourself up against that, but on the other side, if he does get back to that, get back to the way he played, it gives us less of a chance. So, it’s sort of a double-edged sword.”

Manassero, the 18-year-old Italian who’s already won twice on the European Tour, was a week shy of his fourth birthday when Woods won his first Masters, but Manassero says he remembers it.

“I actually do have a little memory of it, because it was such a big Masters,” Manassero said. “I really watched the Tiger era, and I followed him closely. I think all of us who grew up watching him dominate would like to see him come back. We grew up with the idea he would own all the major championship records, so it would be really, really good to see him back doing it again after all that’s passed.”

Manassero said dueling Woods would be like walking through a dream.

“Getting to duel with Tiger would be an achievement in itself, but if it would go my way, that would be amazing,” Manassero said.

Fowler, 22, was 8 when he watched Woods win his first Masters.

“If you grew up watching Tiger and weren’t inspired, something’s wrong,” Fowler said.

Fowler said he would relish seeing Woods return to form in hopes he could measure himself against Woods at his best.

“Definitely,” Fowler said. “I want to win tournaments, and I’m obviously looking for my first, and I want to win with Tiger Woods in the field. I would like to see him playing well again. I want to beat the best players in the world.”

They want to beat the guy who looked like he was going to be the best who ever lived.