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The Comeback: Tiger's journey against the 'Tiger Effect' generation

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Jim Furyk initiated a pause that exceeded even his deliberate norms.

“All right, I’ll say it,” Furyk said to break the momentary silence. “I was embarrassed that I played golf when I was a kid. It was not a cool sport to play. I hid my clubs in the coach’s office before school started, I got them out before the bell rang and I got the hell out of the hallways, because I wasn’t proud.”

Furyk is one of the few souls on the PGA Tour who can speak credibly to the generational gap that spans Tiger Woods’ career, having enjoyed success during most of it. The hair may have left, but the trademark swing stands the test of time and serves as a testament: I went toe-to-toe with the greatest of an era and lived to tell the tale.

His evasive hallway exploits took place in the late 1980s, when the golf world knew only whispers of Woods as a transcendent tot on the SoCal junior circuit. But Furyk’s pervading mindset spoke of a generation that would be quickly disrupted by Woods’ ascent, one that staunchly clung to the country-club mentality and was ill-prepared for the tour de force that would transform the game.

“I played football, basketball and baseball. I was proud to play those sports,” Furyk added. “I loved golf, but you have more good athletes now playing the game, depth-wise, than you did 20 years ago.”

The world that Woods took by storm two decades ago is far different from the one he looked to reconquer last year, and different still from the one that watched him slip into a green jacket this spring. Gone are the scores of journeymen who once cobbled out a decent living on Tour without much time for practice. Same for the single-skill specialists, the ones who shined so brightly in one area as to make up for glaring deficiencies elsewhere.

This is the Tiger Effect. The one he bore and the one he’s had to overcome.

Out on Tour in 2019, you need to have the entire package. Fairways are lined not with players who spend more time at the buffet table than the gym, but instead by physical specimen who have honed their craft by combining two workouts for every round played. The era of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy is upon us, with athletes taking to golf rather than golfers gleaning athletic skills to boost their skill set.

“I think Tiger 20 years ago showed that it’s OK to be in great shape, and to be a good athlete, and lift weights and hit the golf ball harder than anyone’s ever hit it before. And now we’ve got the new breed that do that consistently,” Graeme McDowell said. “I think it drives people, and it kind of makes people more bullish to get in the gym and to hit it harder.”

When Woods won the 1997 Masters, the first of his 15 major titles, the final leaderboard included the likes of Tom Kite, Tommy Tolles, Tom Watson and Paul Stankowski. His weekend playing competitors were Colin Montgomerie and Costantino Rocca. All talented players, but none that would ever be mistaken for an NFL draft pick.

Last fall, in Atlanta, Woods went toe-to-toe with McIlroy, a man both praised and admonished for his dedication to physical fitness.

This spring, back down the road in Augusta, when he brought the sport to a standstill in pursuit of the victory many thought would never come, the leaderboard was basically a muscle flex borne out in green and white lettering. There was Koepka, in search of his third major in less than a year and seemingly as concerned with his physique as his strokes-gained totals. And there was Johnson, Koepka’s frequent workout partner, whose sinewy frame has fostered two-sport comparisons for a decade.

Playing with Woods was Tony Finau, whose 310-yard average off the tee would have led the Tour by 8 yards back in ’97, but only placed him ninth this season. Even the most halcyon throwback to a prior generation, Francesco Molinari, was months removed from the unthinkable: staring down Woods with a major on the line and leaving with the trophy.

After nearly a year on the mend and five years since he was most recently at the height of his powers, Woods surely went through a sobering assessment of the revamped landscape upon his full-time return last year. It’s likely he channeled the perspective of Brooks – not Koepka, but Hatlen, the octogenarian from “Shawshank Redemption,” who took stock of a world that had passed him by after stepping foot outside prison for the first time in years.

“I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside,” Hatlen lamented. “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.”

Inside the ropes, that world now contained a dozen or more stone-cold assassins who were ready to pounce at the opportunity of going toe to toe with Woods. The span from 2014-17, during which Woods did not win a single tournament, coincided with the rise of Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. Suddenly the arena he strode back into contained a little more bite than the one he left, when he still ran roughshod over the Tour en route to five wins and Player of the Year honors in 2013.

As it turned out, the vacuum created by his absence may have had some unintended consequences.

“I mean, a lot of it happened because Tiger never let anybody win,” Jack Nicklaus explained. “And when you don’t learn to win, you never gain the confidence to be a good player. Tiger got hurt, and all of a sudden these young guys, who are all good players, learned how to win. And they all started getting multiple wins, so when Tiger came back, he had a bunch of guys who had learned how to play in his absence.”

Spieth’s meteoric rise was a prime example of capitalizing on a Tiger-less world. At age 20, he managed to join Woods in the team room at the 2013 Presidents Cup without having ever played a competitive round together.

“Just getting into the aura that is being paired and playing with Tiger, it’s different,” Spieth explained. “I remember the first time I played with Phil (Mickelson), how nervous I was just to play with him. With Tiger, it’s just a different animal.”

But by the time they finally teed it up together at the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open, the Woods mystique had been stripped by a handful of chummy practice rounds together. Instead of a source of intimidation, he had become one of motivation for a younger crop who hoped to challenge the player they had grown up watching on YouTube.

Spieth seized the opportunity, shooting a 63 on the North Course at Torrey Pines alongside Woods, dusting his playing competitor by eight shots.

“I think guys just came out embracing wanting to play against Tiger, to try to take him down,” Spieth said. “But at the same time, this is when he’s 40. Not when he was 23. So, you know that it’s a bit different.”

These days that preparation to play at the highest level starts well before the professional game. Players all the way down to the junior level can now hone their swings while crunching smash factors and launch angles with the aid of Trackman and other similar devices that offer digital feedback on every nook and cranny of the swing.

College golf was certainly competitive when Woods was strolling around Stanford, but look no further than Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa to see that amateurs leaving campus today are better prepared to transition to life on Tour than ever before.

“There are more smart people now helping these guys. And I think the college coaches deserve some credit here,” said Charles Howell III, who has competed against Woods at every level from junior golf to the PGA Tour. “I think down the whole line, people are just smarter. And they’re just producing better players.”

Thomas’ pro career has joined Spieth’s at the hip each step of the way, and he likewise thrived in Woods’ absence as his own pro career blossomed. Thomas won the 2017 PGA Championship without Woods in the field, and his ascent to world No. 1 came when Woods’ most recent comeback was just getting off the ground.

“I think the biggest difference is that we didn’t have to play against Tiger. So, we’re not all playing in that fear of him,” Thomas said. “From what I was watching as a kid, everybody did. We obviously respect him like we respect everybody else, but we just don’t have that fear.”

Fear may not have been a primary factor for Ernie Els during his prime, but shock and awe certainly were. Els finished second to Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open – the most dominating performance in major championship history – then posited that Woods would have beaten Old Tom Morris by 80 shots that week at Pebble Beach.

Time has healed many of the wounds Woods once inflicted on Els’ psyche, and as he reaches the twilight of a Hall of Fame career he’s equipped with a certain perspective about what separates the generations. According to the Big Easy, the key is not the ability of certain top individuals – it’s the depth of the talent pool that creates the biggest challenge.

“There were only a few real ball-strikers like we have today, like a Nick Price and Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Greg Norman,” Els said. “Probably like what we had in our Big 5, Big 3, whatever you called it back in those days. There’s more of those kind of players. There’s maybe 20 of those players, where there were maybe only five or 10 of us back 15 years ago. So that’s a big change. The game’s just deeper. It’s a deeper challenge.”

Or, as McDowell colorfully put it, “I feel like I took my eye off the ball for a split-second and a hundred 25-year-olds raced past me.”

The game got itself in a big damn hurry.

The raw numbers bear out the depth of the challenge facing Woods. When the calendar flipped to 2000, with him on the verge of kicking off the Tiger Slam, the average age of the other players inside the top 10 in the world rankings was nearly 34. When he won the Masters this spring to return to the top 10, the average age of the other nine names around him was 30. Even in just the past 10 years, the average distance of the Tour’s top 10 drivers has ticked up nearly 6 yards (306.3 to 312.1) while the average of the 10 fastest clubhead speeds has gone from 121.1 to 123.3 mph.

To put it another way, the best on Tour today are younger, they’re stronger, they swing harder, they hit it farther and they have more data at their disposal than at any other point in the history of the game.

And yet despite all those factors, despite Woods’ aging physique and the relative talent of those he sought to chase down, it was he whom the masses enveloped on his way to victory last September, and it was his name they chanted near the 18th green in April. He’s the one who delivered a storybook comeback for the ages, even if the salient factors will only make it more difficult to replicate those triumphs in the future.

At East Lake, at Augusta, Woods faced bolstered fields of his own making, a group that trod the path he forged. A group that spent their lives trying to improve upon the mold-breaking model he set forth and licked their collective chops at the opportunity to face him down the stretch. One by one, he took them all down.

“The whole thing makes it tougher for him,” Nicklaus said. “But it also makes it so that what his accomplishment is, what it was against, is even bigger.”