AUGUSTA, Ga. _They are the irrepressible Sons of Tiger, this generation of millennials preparing to lay waste to the sport of golf. They had Tiger Woods posters on their bedroom walls. They studied his icy stare and mimicked it in their junior tournaments. They wore red shirts and sported Nike swooshes, long before anybody was paying them to do so, just because he did.
They came of age as Woods was dominating the sport as few had before him, his televised magnetism helping draw them in — but they arrived too late to experience the Tiger Era, in its full-fledged glory, for themselves. And now, as the 2015 Masters dawns, they more than anyone else are helping to ensure its permanent demise.
Woods's once-mighty river of major championships, numbering 14 in all, dried up following the 2008 U.S. Open, and he hasn't so much as contended for a major in nearly two years. Into the ensuing void has stepped an army of youngsters who revere Woods more than they fear him, and who are hell-bent on succeeding him as the face of golf.
Chief among them, of course, is Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old champion from Northern Ireland, with four major titles already in his ledger and a chance this week to become just the sixth golfer in history to win the career grand slam. A new Nike commercial that debuted this week details — quite faithfully — McIlroy's journey from idolizing Woods from afar to taking the figurative baton from him.
"He was someone I put up on a pedestal," McIlroy said of Woods. "Now, I obviously have a very different relationship with him. I know him quite well. But I think if you ask a lot of golfers [of] my generation, he was the benchmark. He was the inspiration for us to go out and try to be the best that we could be."
McIlroy, the top-ranked golfer in the world, has a clear head start on his peers, but just as Woods, at age 25, was still holding off peers such as Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Justin Leonard, McIlroy has serious work to do to lock up the title of best golfer of his generation.
The pack of talented peers chasing him includes 21-year-old Jordan Spieth, the fourth-ranked golfer in the world and last year's Masters runner-up; 24-year-old Patrick Reed, who won four times on the PGA Tour in 18 months; and Rickie Fowler, 26, who finished in the top five at all four 2014 majors. You might also include on the list Japanese phenom Hideki Matsuyama, 23; long-drive slugger Brooks Koepka, 24; Australia's Jason Day, 27, a two-time U.S. Open runner-up; and 2014 FedEx Cup champ Billy Horschel, 28.
"If you can't see the appeal of players like that, you've become a little too cynical," Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said during a recent conference call. ". . . I don't think we're watching a changing of the guard. I think it's already changed."
All these youngsters, even Day and Matsuyama across the Pacific Ocean, were brought into golf during the wave that arose from the peak of the Woods era.
"Tiger was my hero growing up and still remains the man to me,'' Matsuyama said. "When I would watch him on TV in Japan, I can remember thinking that he was so good and so cool and his swing was so pure. I vividly remember Tiger winning the U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines. I remember trying to swing like him, but his swing was so good that I had no chance."
Spieth, who would be graduating from the University of Texas this spring had he not left to turn pro in December 2012 as a sophomore, is young enough that he needed a video retrospective in order to learn about Woods's fourth and last Masters title in 2005 — when Spieth was 11.
As he watched over and over Woods's famous chip-in at the 16th hole in that final round, Spieth was blown away by Woods's exuberant fist pump and the commensurate explosion of the crowd.
"The magic he brings to this tournament and every major championship," Spieth said, "it's a dream for everybody to be in contention and try and take Tiger down on the back nine of Augusta."
What is missing from these young players' world views is any sense of fear or even awe of Woods. For the most part, they missed the era when Woods's towering fame and overpowering game made him arguably the most intimidating player in golf history.
"They didn't have to compete against him week in and week out like us, when you knew you couldn't beat him," veteran tour pro Pat Perez said recently. "There was a five-year stretch there when . . . there was nothing you could do about [him]. It's just different now."
But different doesn't necessarily mean worse, and whether McIlroy eventually ascends to a Woods-like stratosphere, or this generation forges a spirited, decade-long free-for-all — such as the Ballesteros-Faldo-Norman-Price period that bridged the gap from Jack Nicklaus to Woods — there will be brilliance and drama at the highest level of golf in the post-Tiger era, whenever it arrives.