(Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Dec. 17)
STEVE DESIMONE REMEMBERS the exact moment when he knew Tiger Woods was the best golfer on the planet. It wasn’t during one of Woods’ signature victories at the U.S. Amateur, or the Masters, or the U.S. Open. No, Desimone’s moment of clarity arrived on April 29, 1996, during the first round of the Pac-10 Championship.
That day, Desimone, the longtime coach at the University of California, camped out on Big Canyon Country Club’s 560-yard 16th hole, a brute of a par 5 that doglegs right and pinches into a tight landing area. From there, it’s drastically uphill, and into a prevailing breeze, with a narrow opening to a well-guarded green. The hole tripped up the rest of the elite field, but it somehow offered little resistance to Woods: He pummeled a tee shot into the neck of the fairway, then ripped a 3-wood onto the green and made eagle. Desimone shook his head and zipped off to watch the next group.
A few hours later, as his team finished its round, Desimone parked his cart near the clubhouse and walked over to the leaderboard with former Cal alum and first-year pro Charlie Wi, who would go on to earn nearly $10 million on the PGA Tour.
Scanning the scores, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
Woods, Tiger: 61
Tiger at 40
Dec. 16: Who is Tiger Woods?
Dec. 16: Why Tiger still matters
Dec. 17: Tiger's future in his 40s
Dec. 17: The Tiger effect on youth
Dec. 30: 'Golf Central' birthday special
“I ought to quit right now,” Wi groaned. “There’s no f------ way I can compete with that.”
Woods went out in the afternoon and shot 65, opened up a 15-shot cushion, beat his next-closest teammate by 28 and cruised to the title. A month later, he put an exclamation point on his college career with a comfortable victory at the NCAA Championship – even after a final-round 80.
Over the summer, Desimone was playing in a faculty golf tournament when a few professors from the Haas School of Business approached him and pressed him about golf’s emerging star.
“So, what do you think about Tiger?” they asked.
“Oh, he’s the best player in the world right now,” Desimone said.
The professors scoffed: A college kid? The best? No way.
“I promise you,” Desimone said, “that he will win before the season is done. And when he does, you guys are going to call me and say that that’s one of the greatest calls of all time.”
Of course, Woods won his first pro tournament that October. He added another title two weeks later. The following spring, he won his first major – by 12 shots – and soon climbed to world No. 1.
Since then, Woods held that top spot for a remarkable 683 weeks, hoisted 13 more major trophies, produced the most prolific stretch in golf history and became the most recognizable athlete in the world.
“Needless to say,” Desimone said, “I got calls from both of those professors.”
Woods’ breathtaking dominance may have demoralized the competition and stunted the careers of some of his extravagantly talented peers, but the long-term effects were even more resounding. His dynamic play, seething intensity and unparalleled success inspired, motivated and trained a generation of young global stars who have seized control of the men’s tours.
Now, as he nears 40 year old, it is Woods who is left to wonder: How can I compete with that?
TO FULLY APPRECIATE THE TIGER EFFECT, go back to Stanford, to the fall of 1994. As with most transformative athletes, Woods’ timing was impeccable.
When he arrived on The Farm, college golf was just beginning to undergo significant changes. There were more good players. There were more opportunities. There were more full-time coaches, even a few assistants.
Still, the sport was among the most obscure in college athletics. The marquee programs on the West Coast rarely traveled east of the Rockies. (Forget hopping on a private jet – they were lucky to board a Southwest flight.) Strength and conditioning programs consisted of a few laps around the track. The nutritionist was the team’s chemistry major.
Equipment was only starting to improve, as players transitioned to metal woods. In those days, a company sent a school a set of irons, a driver and a 3-wood, and the players hit the range and learned how to use them. No one adapted quicker than Woods, who was a masterful shot-shaper, even with balata balls that ballooned into the air.
“He could hit these flat short irons that would go through a hurricane,” said Arron Oberholser, who starred at San Jose State and was one of Woods’ chief rivals in college. “It was ridiculous what he could do with a golf ball.”
Woods’ drives were even more jaw-dropping. Before the age of nuclear clubheads that allowed even short knockers to push three bills, Woods swung a 43 1/2-inch steel-shafted driver. Oberholser recalls two drives in particular: Woods’ one-arm, 288-yard blast straight uphill in 55-degree weather at the University of San Francisco’s tournament, and his intentional 40-yard slice at Southern Cal’s event that started over a canyon, bent around an oak tree and flew his playing competitors by more than 20 yards, straight down the center stripe.
“He was the only guy that intimidated me in college golf,” Oberholser said. “I really had to focus to play well with him. I had to get myself to the next level mentally.”
College golf finally reached a national television audience in 1996, for the Western Intercollegiate, which Oberholser won after a closing 64. The reason the event was even broadcast on ESPN was simple: It was all about Woods, who was tuning up for the following week’s Masters.
The college and junior golf landscape look wildly different now, of course, and Woods’ fingerprints are all over the changes.
Players are professionally fitted long before they ever set foot on a college campus. Plus, they are well versed in biomechanics, able to talk as freely about spin rates, clubface angles and advanced statistics as their alma mater’s most recent football game.
As for the competition, the best teams don’t just play in regular-season tournaments – many of them now are events, with sponsors, signage, national media coverage, spectators and first-rate venues. (Among the courses that Stanford will play this year: Olympia Fields, Pasatiempo and Pumpkin Ridge.) The NCAA Championship has become a showcase event for the brightest up-and-comers, a three-day television special with pre- and post-game shows.
“These are run like Tour events,” Desimone said. “That didn’t exist in the ’90s.”
Even the vibe is less cutthroat, especially among the top players, many of whom have been friends for a decade after battling on the junior golf circuit. Naturally, their internal clock starts ticking once they see their buddies tearing up the PGA Tour, but there is also an unwavering self-belief that they’ll get there eventually.
“Tiger wanted to beat you all the time,” said Stanford coach Conrad Ray, who was teammates with Woods from 1994-96. “He didn’t back down, wasn’t afraid of a fight. He was fiercely competitive and refused to lose.
“I think it’s a little bit softer now. A sense of urgency is something that Tiger always had, and that’s one thing I try to teach my guys now: When the heat is on, and the money is on the line, the great ones know how special that opportunity is and they’re going to go for the jugular. I’m not trying to say that we’re not doing the right things with top-tier golf, but a lot of it is intrinsic and you have to have that burning desire to win.”
One of the PGA Tour’s slogans is that the “future is playing now” on the Web.com circuit. Actually, it’s playing now in college and junior golf, which has become a breeding ground for top talent.
The AJGA in particular has gotten a facelift in recent years, with live scoring, electronic leaderboards and national media coverage. Whereas in Woods’ day there might be five players who could win an AJGA invitational, now there are 20 to 25 kids who have a realistic shot – and the winner is likely to challenge the scoring record.
“There’s always been a star on top of the leaderboard out here,” said Stephen Hamblin, the AJGA’s executive director, “but now there’s just tremendous depth.”
One of the biggest reasons is an increased emphasis on fitness, which has become a central part of a golfer’s regimen. It’s not a coincidence that after Woods bulked up – and changed the perception of golfers everywhere – junior and college players took their strength and conditioning to another level with golf-specific workouts.
“Tiger almost changed the game,” Hamblin said, “from having no athletes out here to you need to be an athlete to be one of the best.”
The workouts are more organized and intense in college. At Alabama, which won back-to-back national titles in 2013-14, the athletes work out three times a week during the season, with pre- and post-practice sessions with the strength coach. There is an even greater importance placed on dynamic stretching and improving flexibility in the crucial areas for golfers: core, shoulders, hips and legs.
“We’re trying to be more knowledgeable about what we do for our players,” Crimson Tide coach Jay Seawell said, “instead of just doing a football workout with less weight.”
It’s no surprise, then, that these days, a pro’s entourage includes more than just a swing coach, manager and significant other; a trainer and physiotherapist are also an integral part of the team. Look no further than the top of the world rankings for proof of Woods’ influence: There’s not a twig or butterball among them.
“It’s all about best practices,” Ray said. “People are drawn to what works and what’s successful, and Tiger has set the standard.”
WOODS AT THE PEAK OF HIS POWERS was a spectacle. Interest in the sport soared. Tournament victories felt like coronations. TV ratings were massive, helping propel pro golf into a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry.
With his Jordan-esque appeal, Woods monopolized the media coverage. Every time the casual fan drove past a billboard, flipped through a magazine or turned on a TV, there was Woods – red shirt, big lead, shiny trophy. He owned Sunday afternoons at the biggest events, or so it seemed to the next generation of stars that was watching back home, fascinated.
Rory McIlroy – a single-child prodigy, like Woods – tacked pictures of his boyhood hero on his bedroom wall and sent a letter to Woods at age 9, essentially warning him: I’m coming for you. “He was the benchmark,” McIlroy said. His childhood obsession has since been depicted in a Nike commercial, titled “Ripple,” but the likable lad’s character easily could have been swapped out for any of the latest young sensations, from Patrick Rodgers to Patrick Reed to Justin Thomas.
Rodgers was a multi-sport athlete in Indiana before he was drawn to golf, to Woods and his dominance. Soon enough, he wore black pants and a red shirt at all of his junior events, even when the temperature soared above 90 degrees. “It doesn’t get much more emulative than that,” he said. “He made golf really appealing and motivated me to work hard to try and be like him.” Rodgers went on to star at Stanford, where he matched Woods’ career win total of 11, and signed an endorsement deal with Nike.
Reed still wears that red-and-black ensemble on Fridays and Sundays as a tribute to Woods. Perhaps more than any other young stud, Reed tries to play golf with the same smoldering intensity – he’s stubborn, selfish and tough, with an intense focus that can make his opponents uncomfortable.
Thomas was just 7 years old when he tagged along with his father Mike, a well-known PGA professional, at Valhalla in 2000. Sitting in the clubhouse, Thomas watched as Woods snuck in the 7-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff at the PGA with Bob May. Hooked, Thomas bought a Tiger driver headcover and started using an interlock grip, because he saw Woods’ follow-through in a magazine.
For Harold Varner III, who this year became just the second black golfer since Woods to earn his PGA Tour card, the world No. 1 was more of a curiosity. Though he remembers his father watching Woods’ game-changing Masters victory in ’97, it wasn’t until the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach that young Harold, then 10, grasped the magnitude of the achievement.
“When someone is winning by 15 shots,” he said, “you ask yourself: What the hell is he doing differently than everybody else? When you played golf now, you knew that you had to take it a little more seriously if you wanted to be the best.”
Few took it more seriously at a young age than Jason Day. The only time he could watch golf on his “little turn-knob TV with four or five channels” was during the majors, and Woods just so happened to mop up those titles with regularity.
Still reeling from the death of his father, Day was 12 when he borrowed Woods’ biography from his roommate at the Kooralbyn International boarding school in Australia. That book quite literally changed his life – after studying how Woods progressed from age 13 to his professional days, Day began logging 30-plus hours on the range each week to try and match his hero.
Success soon followed, and on the verge of his PGA Tour debut, he boldly declared that he wanted to “take down” Woods, who at the time was in the prime of his career. Day was ripped by the press, and scolded for his audacity, but his dream of climbing to world No. 1 eventually came true, in September of this year. One of the many pros who reached out to congratulate him on achieving that lifelong goal? None other than Woods.
Indeed, over the past few years, as he transitions into his role as an elder statesman, Woods has come to embrace the 28-year-old Day. He frequently plays practice rounds with the young Australian and swaps texts about family, golf and how to handle the rising stardom.
“He’s been arguably one of the best players of all time,” Day said. “Who wouldn’t want that mentorship from a player like that, especially on the golf course?”
But it’s not just the current crop of pros that idolize Woods. Attend any top-tier junior tournament, and the copycat effect is clear:
They look like him – dressing head-to-toe in Nike gear, swaggering from hole to hole, developing both biceps and zits.
They act like him – rehearsing the same exaggerated moves in their pre-shot routine, muttering if a puff of wind knocks down their shot, glaring at their ball if it dares to veer off at the cup.
They play like him – pounding driver on nearly every hole, flagging iron shots without fear, displaying a masterful touch around the green.
They celebrate like him – snatching up their tee after a monster drive, twirling their iron after perfect contact, uppercutting the air after an important birdie.
Heck, now, they even talk like him, preaching process and reps and how the goal, the only goal, is to win.
EVERY SO OFTEN, while sitting in a lecture hall at the University of Southern California or on a team plane coming home from a tournament, Sean Crocker will open up his laptop, pull up YouTube and punch in a few keywords.
It’s been the same routine for nearly a decade now, ever since he was 12, when he would sneak into his family’s den and spend hours watching highlights on an endless loop.
Tiger Woods’ Greatest Moments. Top-10 Shots. Best Putts. Best Rounds. Best Reactions.
“It never gets old to me,” said Crocker, a recent U.S. Amateur semifinalist. “I don’t care what he’s doing now. Everyone wants to play golf like Tiger Woods used to. He changed the game. He made it cool.”
Talk to enough players between the ages of 15-30 and that phrase – he made it cool – is uttered most often.
Because it wasn’t just that Woods won 79 PGA Tour events and the most majors of any active player. It was the way in which he won – hitting shots that other players couldn’t even fathom, draining clutch putts, intimidating opponents with his raw physicality, seemingly willing himself to victory.
Even the casual fan was drawn in by Woods’ dynamic play, a stark contrast to the ruthlessly efficient brand of golf that made Jack Nicklaus so successful.
“It was the swagger,” Oberholser said. “It was the unashamed and unabated enthusiasm. Golf was always so stuffy and always about keeping everything under wraps and shaking hands and nodding and tipping your cap – all very gentlemanly. He blew that paradigm out of the water.”
In many ways, Woods made golf like other sports. He showed emotion. He electrified the crowd. He brought a new level of athleticism and intensity. The marketing team at Nike played an important role as well, transforming Woods from a nerdy, socially awkward college kid into a national icon.
“When I was in high school, not all of the stud athletes were thinking about playing golf,” said Ray, the Stanford coach who was Woods’ teammate for two years on The Farm. “Then when Tiger started winning and got that recognition and Nike got involved, the average high school athlete thought that was pretty neat. He helped change golf from a leisurely, weekend activity that most people looked at as being played by old people into something that’s cool.”
Added Oberholser: “Tiger’s is the last generation that went through high school and got laughed at for playing golf.”
The effect was significant, because it made golf seem appealing to a new brand of athlete that otherwise would have been drawn to football, baseball or basketball. Without Woods’ influence, it’s fair to wonder whether Jordan Spieth would have played baseball like his father … or PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Daniel Berger would have played tennis like his dad … or Tony Finau would have played basketball like his cousin. Brooks Koepka, Hideki Matsuyama, Billy Horschel and Rodgers all likely could have pursued another sport besides golf, but they didn’t.
“Tiger was the role model, the motivation for so many players,” Desimone said. “He is on that pedestal, and he made golf cool and made it fun, a lot like Arnold Palmer 50 years ago.
“Everyone gets their blood flowing when they see great play like that. You attach yourself to that and say, ‘Damn, that’s cool and fun and I’ve got to give that a shot, because maybe I can do that.’ And that’s what these kids have been saying now for the past 20 years.”
Crocker, the son of a professional cricketer, was a stud shortstop before he abruptly quit baseball and focused on golf. In just a few years, he has already developed into one of America’s most talented prospects, but he also has an edge and attitude that reminds some of Woods in his early years.
It seems all of those YouTube study sessions have paid off, because Crocker is known to fist pump, club twirl and irritate his opponents with his gamesmanship. (His on-course comportment even drew the ire of Greg Norman, who was working as a TV analyst during the U.S. Amateur.) Crocker, though, remains unapologetic for his demonstrative play, saying that the emotion helps bring out his best and that he’s simply following Woods’ lead.
“Tiger just made the game way more intense,” Crocker said, “and it’s OK not to keep that emotion bottled up inside. It’s not that old man’s sport anymore. Everybody is an athlete now, and we are working our asses off to try and become the best player in the world one day.”
THERE’S NO TURNING BACK NOW, of course. This has become more than just a youth movement. It’s a hostile takeover.
The numbers on the PGA Tour are startling:
Nine of the top 20 players in the world are in their 20s.
Six of the last seven majors have been won by 20-somethings.
This fall, Russell Knox, an old man at 30, snapped a run of four consecutive Tour wins by players age 23 or younger, the first time that’s happened in 30 years. Before Knox’s victory, 11 of the past 12 winners were in their 20s.
The shifting attitude among golf’s next generation is epitomized by the 22-year-old Thomas, who broke through at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, his 39th start as a pro. At his winner’s news conference, he was asked whether he was surprised to notch a victory so early in his career.
“I expected to win a lot sooner than this, honestly,” he said.
Woods’ dominance was so oppressive that it scarred an entire generation of players. That aura has since been shattered, for a variety of reasons, from scandal to poor form to injury. In that vacuum has emerged a new breed of player that has shifted the Tour’s balance of power.
Inspired by Woods’ bravado, international stars and Americans coming out of the college golf system are aggressive and tournament-tested, having cut their teeth in top-tier amateur events on world-class courses with difficult setups against the best competition. Once they arrive on the big stage, they’ve proven to be fearless – emboldened by the lack of a domineering presence, confident in their ability, buoyed by the early success of their peers.
“That ‘why not me?’ mindset is so pervasive,” said Desimone, the Cal coach. “A lot of these guys are friends. And what I do see, especially in the best players, is that these guys know that they’re good – they don’t have to pick up a sign and say that they’re going to have success on Tour. They know it, because they’ve played and beaten the best.”
Tour players have already taken notice. Recent first-time winner Peter Malnati was working out during the fall stop in Mississippi when he stumbled upon a college event on TV. What he saw was terrifying – drives that sailed more than 300 yards, iron shots that danced next to the cup, putts that dropped from all over. “I just won a PGA Tour event,” he said, “and I don’t know if I wanted to play against these kids in this college event.”
That the youngsters have experienced so much success so soon has redefined expectations and shifted the baseline for a player’s peak years. A golfer used to thrive in his mid-30s, once he settled into the rhythms of Tour life and learned how to win (and lose). Advancements in instruction, fitness, equipment and amateur golf – many of which were spurred on by Woods’ transcendent play – have drastically shortened that timetable.
Twenty years ago, it was preposterous to suggest that the best players in the world could be only a few years removed from college – after all, it’s been a running joke between Desimone and those professors ever since the coach’s “bold” prediction. Now, though, they’re practically the norm, and the influx of young, hungry stars will only make winning more difficult – especially for the soon-to-be 40-year-old Woods.
“If you draw the lines back,” Desimone said, “if you look at every stage of golf and want to know why these kids are so good, one thing stands out: This whole thing runs directly toward Tiger.”