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They wanted this: A new era gets a shot at 'that' Tiger Woods

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- The streaming service on his flight worked well enough so that Adam Hadwin and his wife, Jessica, could watch the final round of the Masters on their way to Chicago, the plane pulling up to the gate just in time for them to scurry to an airport bar and watch the conclusion.

As you might expect, the place was crowded with people trying to get a glimpse as Tiger Woods was about to win his fifth Masters and 15th major title.

Hadwin, 31, who won the 2017 Valspar Championship but did not qualify for the Masters this year, was a fan like everyone else.

"Everybody was glued to the TV; it was packed,'' Hadwin said. "There are very few athletes, especially golf, who cross generations, where everybody wants to tune in to see those people. Tiger is one of them. It was pretty cool.

"To see him get back to that level of playing so well and winning a major championship, it was like, 'Yes.' You were just happy for him.''

Happy enough to have to compete against that Tiger?

That is an interesting question, as Woods gets set for the PGA Championship this week at Bethpage Black, his first tournament since winning the Masters.

As Woods suffered through back problems, aborted comebacks and spinal fusion surgery and finally began finding his form last year, more than a few players of the younger generation -- those who grew up watching him dominate the game -- openly wished for the chance to compete against the Tiger of his prime.

"The hell you do,'' said David Duval, a 13-time winner and former No. 1-ranked golfer and now a Golf Channel analyst.

The line received plenty of attention before Woods began to assert himself. Now he has won twice in the comeback, climbed to sixth in the world, contended in the past three major championships and won the Masters.

It might not be vintage early 2000s Tiger, but it can also be pretty stout.

"It's not the same,'' Rory McIlroy said. "It's not Pebble Beach in 2000, I think that's a once-in-a-lifetime performance. I don't think something like that's going to happen again. But he's competitive, and he's going to be up there.

"Going forward, he knows that he can win on the biggest stage again. Not that he didn't know, like he obviously does. It's just a great story.''

"The hell you do." David Duval, when told a new generation of players wanted a shot at a healthy Tiger Woods.

One of McIlroy's endearing qualities is his honesty, and last year, after contending at The Open -- and seeing Woods' name ahead of his before eventually finishing second to Francesco Molinari -- he was asked if players were going to have to "deal with Tiger now for a few years.''

"Not Tiger that Phil [Mickelson] and Ernie [Els] had to deal with,'' McIlroy said. "It's a different version. ... I wouldn't say we're worried about him, but he's one of those guys who is always in there with a shot.''

The comment may have drawn some interest, but it was generally on the mark. Woods is unlikely to scare anyone as in the old days, but his best is pretty formidable. Having a loud, boisterous gallery doesn't hurt either.

And the way he played the back nine at Augusta National -- two-putt par after safe approach at 12; two-putt birdie at 13; solid par at 14; two-putt birdie at 15; stiff approach and birdie at 16 to take a two-shot lead; perfect drive and approach and a par at 17 -- brought back some memories.

"I felt like I was learning my trade a little bit when he was at his best, so he never really took chances away from me, per se, but I think there's always a satisfaction of winning a tournament when he's in the field,'' No. 2-ranked Justin Rose said.

"I think the dominant Tiger of 2000, winning eight, 10 times, I'm still not sure that's possible. It hasn't been possible for anybody else since. It's a tough level to get to. I think he's right there with the best players in the world every single week who has a great chance to win. I think him getting back to that level is unbelievable from where he was. Chipping yips, stuff like that, stuff that he had to deal with that aren't just injury based. It's amazing to be where he is.

"I think the excitement to go up against him down the stretch and to come out on top validates, especially now, if that was to happen in a major championship, it would be even bigger.''

Interestingly, both McIlroy and Rose have been up close and personal with Woods as part of his comeback. Rose played the third round of the Tour Championship at East Lake with Woods, shooting 68 to Woods' 65. McIlroy played the final round and shot 74 to Woods' 71. Neither player was able to close the gap as Woods went on to his 80th PGA Tour title. (McIlroy also lost a match to Woods at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship.)

Both players have won tournaments this year and are ahead of Woods in the world ranking.

Tony Finau got to experience the full Woods effect at the Masters. He tied for fifth, having started the final round two strokes behind Molinari, tied with Woods. It was his fourth top-10 finish in his past five major starts. He also was part of the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

For the first time, Finau, 29 -- who has a single PGA Tour victory -- got to see what all the fuss was about with Woods in the final group vying for a major, although he contends Woods' presence did not bother him.

"I was so in my lane,'' Finau said. "I wasn't worried about Tiger and what he was doing. Until we walked off the tee on 18 and I knew I wasn't going to win. And when he hit it in the fairway and he was going to win, I was genuinely happy for him and the game.

"But for 17 holes, I was just worried about me. Everybody enjoys seeing Tiger in the hunt. I kept looking at the scoreboard and thinking what I have to do. Put my best foot forward. Stay patient. I knew the realm of what we were getting into, but from my vision, it was a little bit different perspective.''

How much that perspective changes going forward for all involved remains to be seen. After winning the Tour Championship, Woods noted how many of the young players lauded his comeback and said they wanted to go against him.

"Well, all right,'' Woods said. "Here we go.''

It is difficult to envision Woods being the intimidating force of the past. Much of that had to do with the notion that Woods was so unflappable when his game was on; he didn't make mistakes, therefore you had to do something extraordinary to overcome him.

That, in turn, fueled Woods, who watched others make errors trying to do too much, while he hit all the necessary shots to prevail.

While his Masters victory was the first of his 15 majors where he trailed going into the final round, the last seven holes played out much like the body of his career.

Woods played it safe, well left of the flag, to the 12th green, while others found the water; he didn't flirt with the flagstick at the par-5 13th, hitting his approach to the left of the green and settled for a two-putt birdie; same at the par-5 15th, where a two-putt birdie gave him the outright lead. And then at the par-3 16th, he pulled off the shot he needed, finding the ridge on the green that would funnel the ball toward the hole and an easy birdie.

"I came out on tour at a point where he was struggling,'' Hadwin said. "He went through the yips in Phoenix [2015], and all those problems. The Tiger I grew up watching was not the Tiger I was playing against. I know a lot of us have said that -- maybe not quite get back to his prime where we're playing for second -- but get to the point where he is competitive.

"I never want to be the guy who says there is not that intimidation factor -- he'll kick it up and throw it in my face. But he's happy to be playing the game again, and golf is in a different place. As one of those guys who saw him grow up and everybody was playing for second, I would love for him to get back to his peak -- even if I am playing for second.''

Hadwin has never played with Woods, never even formally met him. Perhaps that changes this week at Bethpage, where a first-tee introduction on the weekend would be welcome if it means a chance to play for a major championship.