AUGUSTA — Justin Thomas, the No. 2-ranked golfer in the world, was three when Tiger Woods won his first Masters. Jon Rahm, ranked No. 3, was two.
But it’s not carbon-dating young PGA Tour stars to that sport-changing, 12-shot victory at Augusta in 1997 that makes Woods shake his head. It’s the decade gone by since his last major hurrah, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
“A lot of these kids, some of their first memories are of when I won my last major championship,” Woods, 42, said Tuesday at Augusta National. “That’s what’s crazy.”
That’s what’s wrong.
“I mean, he’s been an idol of us all,” Rahm said. “Right?”
The ideal 2018 Masters this week is Woods continuing his unexpectedly ferocious comeback and prowling into Amen Corner on Sunday all tangled up with Thomas (24), Rahm (23) and Jordan Spieth (24). Throw top-ranked Dustin Johnson (33) and old Tiger nemesis Phil Mickelson (47) in there for good measure.
Something like that.
Fans and haters, fresh and nostalgic.
Good for sports. Great for golf.
Enough to make people go out and play 18 holes for the first time since the Atlanta Braves were dangerous.
It’s been too long, with too many back surgeries and setbacks and false starts. Woods talked Tuesday about the dangers that come when modern athletes push themselves to the edge of physical boundaries.
“But thank God there’s modern science to fix us and put us back together again,” he said with a smile.
Las Vegas believes: only Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Thomas and Johnson have better Masters odds than Woods, who hasn’t won a tournament since 2013.
What a difference a few healthy outings make. Woods logged only two rounds of golf on tour in 2017 but has played in five tournaments this year. He was within one shot of the lead at some point on the back nine at three Florida tournaments in a row (finishing tied for second, tied for second again and tied for fifth).
“I really hope I’m playing my best golf,” Woods said. “This is a tournament that I think where experience does help a lot.”
Modern medicine — “I don’t know anyone has ever had a lower-back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can,” Woods said — is meshing well with modern golf equipment technology. Woods pointed out how his clubhead speed (“cruising at 120 mph”) is aided by titanium clubs that have replaced those steel drivers he played with in the 1990s. Harder golf balls help, too.
But what’s really fun is the reaction of the young guns.
A Tiger Watch is best seen through the eyes of prey.
Spieth in his four Masters appearances has finished tied for second, first, tied for second and tied for 11. But he’s never had to deal with the guy in the red shirt on Sunday.
“The addition of Tiger being healthy and playing well, no matter what else happened, was probably going to make (this Masters) as anticipated as any going back five, six, seven years,” Spieth said.
In other words, since he was just starting out at the University of Texas.
Thomas has eight PGA Tour victories already — during a Tiger hiatus that includes three of the last four Masters.
But the wide-eyed young stars heard an unfamiliar roar in those crowds in Florida.
They get it.
“I haven’t seen the reaction I saw by the range (Monday) to any other player,” Rahm said. “As soon as Tiger walked in everybody stood up and started clapping.”
Rahm is well aware Woods was out there practicing with Mickelson on Tuesday, partnered in a relentless battle of shot-making and needling against 26-year-old Thomas Pieters and Fred Couples, 58 going on 30.
Rahm stressed his Woods comeback ambivalence.
Plus: “It would be great to see it again.”
Minus: “He will be winning 30 percent of the tournaments he plays, which gives a lot less room for the rest of us to win.”
‘This putt to beat Tiger’
The competitor in Rahm wants a Tiger fight on his resume. He mentioned all those times he’s practiced “this putt to beat Tiger.”
Thomas laughed about the no-win situation.
“If I say I want to play against him, I can’t beat him,” he said. “If I say I don’t want to play against him, they say I’m backing down from a challenge.”
There has been nothing in golf (and few things in sports) these last 50 years like Tiger Woods in contention for a major on Sunday.
It happened a lot while he was winning 14 majors, four short of Jack Nicklaus’ record.
“All I’ve done is watch it and enjoy it,” Thomas said. “Maybe I wouldn’t enjoy it so much if I was on the other end, but I guess we’ll never know. Or maybe I will.”
For Justin Thomas or some other young guy, we can only hope.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff