The Masters: Tiger vs The Tiger Field

Tiger Woods waits to take his second shot at the fifth hole of the Copperhead course on Saturday. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

Tiger Woods enters the Masters field to find a Tour reshaped in his image

There is but one story that will dominate Masters week, regardless of outcome, and that story is Tiger Woods.

Tiger seems healthy. He seems to be enjoying golf and the PGA TOUR more than he has in years. He has played well, at times very well, with flashes of his old self at times. There is still some rust, the result of a stop-and-start five years since his last win in 2013.

Woods is playing this week at Augusta, and it has the sports community focused on whether he can get back to dominating the field like he did ten years ago on such a regular basis.

This conversation misses the point, and perhaps the greatest impact Tiger Woods has had on professional golf. Yes, Tiger could contend this week and nobody would be surprised, but while Tiger may still be Tiger the field has changed dramatically in his absence.

In the early 2000s, the question for every major golf tournament was “Tiger or the field?” Outlets in Las Vegas took that specific bet, with Tiger being favored over every other golfer in tournaments combined. The fact of the matter is, those days are over. They’re not over because Tiger Woods has gotten old, or lost a step. They’re over because the field these past twenty years has been taking their cues from Tiger Woods, learning how he became who he became and following that example.

Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Jon Rahm, and so many others are part of Tiger Woods’ impact on Tour. Woods might cite equipment advancements as the reason the field has gotten so good, but really the reason is him.

Other golfers before Tiger worked out and made fitness a part of their golf game. Arnold Palmer looked like an athlete for his time. Gary Player is still golf’s most outspoken voice on getting people in shape. Greg Norman in his younger days certainly looked like an athlete. All three won in a big way, and their fitness was a major part of the reason why. Still, Tiger Woods’ career was most certainly a turning point.

Phil Mickelson, five years Tiger’s elder, could attest to this. As Tiger’s star was burning bright, Phil’s less imposing physical shape became part of the Mickelson story. Over the years, Lefty has worked to get into better shape, and when he broke through in 2004 at Augusta he was one of the longest hitters on Tour. It is worth wondering if he would still be playing, and winning, at 47 were he not pushed to a new level by a rival.

The way professionals practice and play golf has changed. They train on the course and off of it now, following Woods’ example. The field studies themselves and their own games, working with swing coaches and a veritable team of experts to get their games in winning shape.

(Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

None of this is to say that Tiger can’t win. If Phil Mickelson can regularly press the field at 47 with lingering arthritis and a family to which he is clearly devoted, Tiger Woods’ comeback is more than simply believable.

The new field does present new challenges though. Rory McIlroy has found his form after missing most of 2017 with injuries. Rory is another member of the field that has been reshaped in the image of Eldrich Woods. Rory has won majors before, and won one in the same dominant fashion we associate with Tiger Woods. Jordan Spieth has run away with more than one major, one of which was The Masters.

The challenge, then, is a new one for a golfer that seems to have accomplished just about everything a golfer can. It’s not unlike Jack Nicklaus’ final act on the PGA TOUR in that way, trying to get another big win over an entirely different field.

“Tiger or the field” is no longer enough of a certainty to take bets on. Woods is the Vegas favorite this week, but keep in mind betting odds are set based on how many people bet on specific people. Tiger’s presence in a tournament brings more of everything: More fans at regular season tournaments, more attention for the sport, more betting in Vegas, and bigger ratings across the board.

Perhaps a healthy Tiger Woods will help show the sports world what they might have missed in the time between his last win in 2013 and today: That the rest of golf’s field is catching up to the example Woods set twenty years ago. To appreciate Tiger, after all, it might be important to look at the legacy he’s already set.