It’s nearly April in Georgia which means that it’s almost time for The Masters which — for my money — is easily a top-5 sporting event of any year.
The Masters has long been the crown jewel of each golf season, but has become even more of a legend within its own time over the last couple of decades. That rise in popularity has come in lockstep with the boost that the rest of the golfing world has undergone, and there is little argument that Tiger Woods was the catalyst for this extensive growth.
Fresh out of college in 1997, Woods was expected to be a force on the PGA Tour. Woods over-delivered on all the hype, breaking The Masters’ scoring record en route to the most dominating performance the tournament has ever seen. Woods used that week as the launching point for his Hall of Fame career and took the entire sport along for the ride.
As we entered a new century and millennium, golf found itself as a legitimate summer sport, thanks in large part to Woods and his star power. Not only was Wood a diverse face for the game in terms of his ethnicity – he was also a twenty-something who spent long hours at the range and in the gym while the rest of the top tier of golf was an amalgamation of older guys who weren't exactly candidates for the cover of Men's Fitness Magazine.
Woods carried the torch for nearly two decades and now, just as his career is in serious flux, it is the next generation that — largely inspired by Woods' approach to the game — seems poised to take the game to a new level.
For years, the biggest question in golf was 'Who will be Tiger's rival?'. Phil Mickelson faded away in some major tournaments and both were past their prime by the time Lefty really found his championship game. Guys like Ernie Els and Vijay Singh competed for a bit, but were older than Woods and never considered contemporaries. By the time Rory McIlroy hit the scene, Tiger was already going through physical and personal issues, ensuring that no rivalry was on the horizon.
But just as television ratings and tournament purses were starting to take a real hit from the 'post-Tiger' years, a generation of talent inspired by Woods' dominance are flooding the game.
McIlroy was the first to arrive and seemed like the next prodigy. He is still among the best in the world, but has been joined in recent years by Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and a healthy cast of other young and supremely athletic players.
The joke used to be that — if Tiger was in a given tournament — everyone else was playing for second. That sort of star power and total dominance helped to draw attention, but it could be that a larger pool of elite talents in their prime can provide even more excitement in the coming years.
There will be differing odds on who the favorite is to win the 2016 Masters, but not many would argue that the amount of players who could easily top the field without the label of 'Cinderella story' is as big as it has ever been.
While Tiger probably won't be in the field this year, I won't deny that I'd still like to see him in contention on some future Sunday at Augusta. As a left-hander who likes taking stupid risks on the course, I've also had a rooting interest in Mickelson over the years.
But I can look at those former biases and easily say that I'm much more excited for the next five years or so. Tiger ran unopposed as the king of golf for well over a decade and Phil got a few years in the sun as well.
In the end, the best part of both runs is that they have helped to create the deepest and most talented group of young players the game has ever seen. We can all pick our favorites from here on out, but there's little doubt that we're all in for more exciting and more competitive major tournaments moving forward.