SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – For nearly two decades, a tee time with Tiger Woods has been a hazard to approach with caution.
Frenzied crowds. Extra television cameras. Throngs of security.
Many players have seen scores balloon alongside Woods. He could play well and leave them in his dust, or he could hold steady and wait for their inevitable collapse. Either way, the result felt like a fait accompli.
As Woods embarks on his 20th year as a professional, the profile of his competition has changed. Where once he chased down players 10 or 20 years his senior, now the top contenders are nearly half his age – and they seem ready and willing to stand toe-to-toe with him.
Jordan Spieth was 20 years old when he was paired with Woods for the first time at last year’s Farmers Insurance Open. He shot 63 during the second round on the North Course at Torrey Pines, eight shots better than Woods.
In fact, Spieth and Woods played five competitive rounds together in 2014. Spieth was 20 shots better.
Over 90 holes on four different courses, Spieth could have spotted Woods two shots per side and still played him to a draw. It’s a remarkable statistic, even if Spieth opted to downplay its meaning Wednesday at TPC Scottsdale.
“I don’t think there is anything specifically to him. I just happened to play well in those rounds,” Spieth said. “Couple rounds with Phil (Mickelson) I have played well. I think it’s just random.”
But Spieth is not alone in his success with Woods. Last month Woods was in the rare position of spectator, watching as a man dressed in his colors lit up the course he once owned in the event that he still runs.
Patrick Reed had played with Woods during a practice round at the British Open, but the second round of the Hero World Challenge was the first time they were paired together. Wearing Woods’ Sunday ensemble of a red shirt and black pants, Reed flirted with a 59 before carding a 63. It served as a new competitive course record at Isleworth, a layout where Woods once lived, and it was seven shots better than his 2-under 70.
While Woods certainly struggled in 2014, the success of both Spieth and Reed in his midst last year signals a shift in mentality. The Tour’s new guard has arrived, and they are not intimidated by an assignment on a tee sheet.
“Really I think it’s more that we stick to our game plan,” Reed said. “It’s just trying to play our game of golf and not anyone else’s.”
Reed and Spieth will have another chance to put that theory into practice this week, as both are grouped with Woods for the first two rounds.
The pair have outgrown the label of rising star. Both Spieth and Reed are ranked inside the top 15 in the world, and since Woods last won at the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, they have combined for six worldwide victories. Reed won earlier this month in Hawaii, while Spieth won each of his final two starts in 2014, capped by a 10-shot romp in Woods’ former backyard.
“Tiger’s event, that is as good as I have ever played,” Spieth said.
Their ability to steel their nerves against Woods could be rooted in their age. Reed was 6 years old when Woods lapped the field at the 1997 Masters; Spieth hadn't turned 4. They have grown up in the Woods Era, and the only game they know is the one in which he sits confidently atop the heap.
Rather than anxiety, a pairing with Woods now elicits anticipation.
“I’m excited,” Reed said. “I’ve had a great time playing with him the first two times, and I’m looking forward to playing with him again.”
Spieth went as far as to tell friends in the run-up to this week’s event that he expected to draw Woods again.
“The last two times he’s come back from injuries, I have been paired with him the first two rounds,” Spieth said, referencing their grouping at Torrey Pines and the 2014 Quicken Loans National. “For whatever reason, I just thought it might happen. I think it’s cool.”
Woods remains the star of the group and the tournament, but the days have passed where that realization costs his playing partners shots. Spieth and Reed will meet him on the first tee Thursday, equally eager to beat him and equally convinced that they will do so.
Hopefully Woods can keep up.