Woods faces greatest group of challengers in career


WINDERMERE, Fla. – Jordan Spieth glanced to his right, at the gaudy trophy that features a plastic tiger with his right paw on a golf-ball globe, and reminisced about his unique and meteoric rise from college All-American to PGA Tour champion to Masters contender to top-10 player.

He discussed the sacrifice of his parents. The inspiration of watching his peers succeed. The satisfaction of a job well done. And the long journey still ahead.

“I can’t think of a better way to end the year,” said Spieth, who might as well have also been talking about the 2014 golf season.

Because after smashing tournament records at the Hero World Challenge, dusting a world-class field by double digits and authoring the perfect coda to this year, it was clear that Spieth had officially ushered in a new era.

For years the most-asked question in golf was who would pose the greatest challenge to Tiger Woods. It took nearly two decades, but it appears that we finally have our answer: dozens of extravagantly talented, ultra-motivated players who carry none of the baggage that stunted the careers of the past generation.

In this new environment there are no forced rivalries, no manufactured drama, no marketing creations. The headliners for 2015 need no extra hype, because their worldwide résumés speak for themselves:

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There is Rory McIlroy, the undisputed world No. 1, the 25-year-old global superstar who will head to Augusta aiming for both his third major in a row and the career Grand Slam.

There is Spieth, the telegenic, mature-beyond-his-years phenom who at 21 years, 4 months and 11 days has already earned three pro titles.

There are the other young stars (Rickie Fowler and Jason Day), and the elite talents who won’t fade (Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson), and the aging warriors desperate for one last shot (Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk). All of the aforementioned are currently ranked inside the top 12 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

And then, of course, there is Woods, who returned to golf last week following a four-month absence.

Showing off newfound flexibility, power and speed, Woods impressed spectators, media types and even some of his sharpest critics with his revamped long game. Hank Haney, who worked with Woods from 2004-10, wrote on Twitter that the new-look Tiger had made a “great” change by making his grip weaker and that he was swinging better than he had in five years, a not-so-subtle dig at his former coach Sean Foley.

Yes, Woods’ short game was unfathomably poor – he had nearly as many chunked chips (nine) as birdies (14) – but he was far from the only player to struggle around Isleworth’s notoriously difficult greens. It’d be more concerning if his short-game woes weren’t fixed by April.

While Woods may have boosted hopes with his new action, the game’s biggest draw still got whooped head-to-head by Patrick Reed in the second round (63-70) and ultimately finished a whopping 26 shots behind Spieth.

Not too long ago that scenario would have seemed impossible, but these are changing times; this year alone three under-25 players shot 63 while walking alongside Woods. Spieth accomplished the feat at Torrey Pines, Woods’ personal playground, and woofed afterward that he “wasn’t intimidated by any means.”

Nor should he have been, not after Woods has spent much of the past few years fighting his swing and rehabbing various injuries. In that void has emerged a crop of young, talented, fearless players who learned how to win on the biggest stages without the presence of a dominant No. 1 or the crippling weight of expectation.

“Young guys not being afraid to win, I think that was really, really big for me when I first turned professional and seeing that,” Spieth said. “These were guys that I played with in amateur golf and briefly in junior golf. I felt like I could compete with those guys. It gave me a lot of confidence when I first came out.”

Now that Woods has returned to full health, he faces not just a compelling battle against Father Time, but also a bevy of players who are bigger, longer, stronger, faster, feistier, smarter and, most of all, better than the previous generation.

To return to his winning ways in the majors, Woods must overcome both his own history – the six-year drought, the injuries, the career ambitions – and the likes of McIlroy and Spieth, of Fowler and Day, of Scott and Stenson.

What delicious fun 2015 could be.