AUGUSTA, Ga.— Every generation of athletes fantasizes about what it would have been like to play against its heroes. In the same way Tom Seaver once wrote a book entitled, “How I Would Pitch to Babe Ruth,” a millennial golfer might imagine trying to beat Tiger Woods down the stretch at a major championship.
They can do that, of course, in a video game. Or, amid the actual azaleas and roaring crowds of Augusta National in the last round of the Masters.
The latter is the thrill and challenge facing young stars Sunday, with Woods having come all the way back to prominence and playing against golfers who always dreamed of being like him.
Francesco Molinari, who held off Woods to win the British Open last July, said on Saturday “Even being from Italy, he was a model and someone I looked up to. He’s one of those sporting icons that you don’t need to be American to appreciate.” Brooks Koepka said, after having held off Woods to win the PGA Championship last August, “the whole reason that all of us, people in my generation, are even playing golf is because of him. And to duel it out with him, it's pretty neat.”
Both of them will have a chance to duel it out with Woods again early Sunday, with Molinari — the leader by two strokes — playing alongside Woods and Tony Finau in the final threesome, one group ahead of Koepka.
“As a kid, I always wanted to compete against him. I’ve dreamed of playing in the final group with him in a major championship,” said Finau, who was inspired to play golf by watching Woods win the 1997 Masters and, 22 years to the day later, was tied with him for second at 11 under.
This intergenerational milieu is possible because Woods, 43, is stunningly rejuvenated after back fusion surgery. And because there are many devoted golfers whose formative years as golfers were spent watching Woods roll over his peers and their elders. Molinari is only seven years younger than the 14-time major winner, but he was just a golf neophyte when he watched the Sunday round in 1997. “I don’t think I stayed up to watch the whole thing because we knew how it was going to end,” Molinari said.
Present-day golfers know all about how fans would distract Woods’ contemporaries by rushing to get good viewing spots. They recognize that crowds overwhelmingly supported Woods. They know they always will face the same treatment as long as they play against him.
An interesting part of the equation, though, is that the current wave does not seem to get intimidated the way golfers did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Part of that is that Woods no longer has a dramatic power advantage. Everybody hits it long now. So far this week, Finau leads in average driving distance (318.8 yards) and Woods is 35th (297.5).
Then there is the other aspect. “The way I look at it, Tiger taught us how to compete,” Finau said. “We’re the aftermath, if you will, of the Tiger effect. The way he dominated, it was like he was scared of nobody. So, I think a lot of us try to be like him and try to be that way, where nothing on the golf course can scare us.
“I think there’s always still a Tiger effect because it is Tiger. But it’s a different era,” said Finau, 29, from Lehi, Utah. “He’s playing against guys that he kind of bred. We were watching him as teenagers, watching him dominate, and I think all of us relish having a chance to compete against him.”
They relish it the way, say, Alex Rodriguez would have loved to have batted against Bob Gibson. Rodriguez, in fact, was in Woods’ gallery Saturday. When I mentioned that I didn’t know he was a golf guy, he said, “Ahh, I’m a fan.”
Woods still has plenty of fans, including some who will be trying to beat him Sunday.