Young lions replacing the old and wounded Tiger

Mark RobersonTucked away among the pine trees is a course that many golf fans consider hallowed ground.  On the first weekend of April golf’s greatest gather in Augusta, Georgia for one of golf’s most prestigious tournaments.

This year at Augusta National, golf’s only continuously played major course, will be as exciting and as significant as any tournament in recent memory.

Jason Day leads the field of competitors as the favorite to win the tournament after recent wins at the WGC Accenture Match Play and Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.

His Australian counterpart Adam Scott is on a similar tear, also having won two tournaments in recent weeks (Trump National Doral and the Honda Classic).

Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are lurking near the top as well, both players ranked inside the top five in the world golf rankings.  Spieth hopes to defend last year’s championship, an 18 under performance only matched by Tiger Woods.

The thing all of these golfers have in common may shock you.  The group’s average age is 28.

The old guard of Woods, Mickelson, Furyk, and Els has tapered off.  Now we see a much younger group vying for championships.  Names like Fowler or Johnson sit atop the leader board on weekends, proving that some of the youngest golfers on tour are also the best in the game in this new post-Tiger era.

This is what will help propel golf into the future, a fresh, young group of exceptionally talented competitors at the pinnacle of their game.

Woods carried a generation on his shoulders on his way to 14 major victories in the span of only 12 years.  His heroics captured the hearts of golfers and brought fans to the sport that would have otherwise been unreachable.

Woods is and always will be the greatest front-runner in all of sports.  He never lost a single major if he had a share of the lead or better going into Sunday.  The chip-in birdies and incredible putts all made in his Sunday red were the stand-out images of golf for all millennials, myself included.

Since Tiger’s marital woes and infidelity were discovered, he has never been the same.  I doubt that he will ever truly regain the fierce competitive edge that he had before his collapse from the top of the world golf rankings.

Yet, last year saw Tiger return to Augusta, in a certain way.

Jordan Spieth’s 27 birdie performance was reminiscent of Woods’ dominance at Augusta in past years.  Together they share the all-time lowest score for a major tournament, at -18.

Although Woods, 40, is absent, rehabbing from his latest spinal surgery, we will see a glimpse of him in the performances of other players this week.   

These are players whose aggressive conditioning and playing styles were inspired by Woods.  The displays of dominance from one of golf’s greatest stars have now moved to the performances of many.

Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson represent the best hopes for the 40+ contenders. While I do expect them to stay near the top of the field, I do not think either will have what it takes to win.

I expect to see another young golfer donning a green jacket this Sunday as Spieth did last year.

Jason Day has an excellent opportunity to win this week, as do long hitters Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.  Day has had his own back issues, along with his recurring vertigo.  Johnson, 31, and Koepka, 25, have shown more than a few flashes, but my money is on Rory McIlroy, at 26 making the leap to completing his career grand slam.

Regardless of who is in contention this weekend, each player in the field knows how special a win at Augusta National is.  In a region of the United States where tea is just about the sweetest thing around, a victory at the Masters is even sweeter.  The majesty of the long, wide and beautifully fringed course often inspires the most telegenic shot-making by the PGA stars, old or new.

Mark Roberson is a recent graduate of the journalism school of the University of Texas at Austin and is also a 9-handicap golfer.


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