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Tiger Woods’ big problem may not be his game, but the next generation he inspired

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While Tiger Woods flew home, three former World Amateur No. 1s, all 25 or younger, sat atop the leaderboard at Torrey Pines on Sunday. It’s representative of the problem he’s, oddly enough, created for himself now.

Farmers Insurance Open - Round One
Regardless of his health or game, Tiger has a youth problem.
Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

An uninspiring performance on the weekdays might have most assuming he’ll never return to past greatness, but what happened on the weekend at the Farmers Insurance Open might be more representative of the obstacles that stand in his way.

If Tiger Woods never returns to his past form or anything remotely resembling that, he may only have himself to blame. Not because of personal transgressions or years of “overtraining” or the yips or his reconstructed back — not any of that.

On a weekend when Big Cat exited stage right early in his return, a leaderboard snapshot with a couple hours to the finish at Torrey Pines captured the battle he’ll fight in returning to greatness. As the leaders turned to the back nine, three names sat tied at the top: Patrick Rodgers, C.T. Pan, and Jon Rahm. Three former World Amateur No. 1s, all under the age of 25, all carving up the South Course in the way the now 41-year-old Woods wasn’t capable of this week — and perhaps isn’t capable of ever again.

Rahm’s closing stretch and dramatic eagle bomb at the 18th to pick up his first professional win was majestic in a uniquely Woodsian way. He’s 22. Rodgers, who shattered Woods’ records at Stanford and followed in his footsteps to Nike, shouldn’t be far behind. Pan won’t be either.

This youth movement isn’t unique to this week, or to the PGA Tour. Hours before Rahm’s victory at the Farmers, Korea’s Jeunghun Wang picked up his third European Tour win in eight months at the Qatar Masters. He’s 21. Justin Thomas will look to pick up his third straight PGA Tour win and fourth in the 2016-17 season the next time he tees it up. He’s 23. Hideki Matsuyama closed 2016 and started 2017 with four wins and two-runnerups in a six tournament stretch, only losing to Thomas twice. He’s 24.

Of the 17 combined events on the PGA Tour and European Tour’s 2016-17 schedule completed so far, 11 have been won by won players 26 or younger. Wins for players over 40 on either tour in that same period? None.

This is the maturation of the Tiger Woods generation. These were the Golf Boom kids, those whom Woods likely in some way, shape, or form inspired or enabled their foray into the game — whether they’ll explicitly tell you that or not. Rory McIlroy may have been first with the commercials and the major wins, but he was merely the tip of the iceberg.

It seems now nearly each and every week we’re proclaiming some player a future star — whether it be Matsuyama, or Thomas, or Rahm, or Wang. The reality is this young class is so deep and competitive that they may all prevent any one from achieving Woods or Nicklaus or Palmer, or hell, even Watson status — McIlroy and Jordan Spieth included.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford
Woods, Rodgers, and Stanford star Maverick McNealy at a Stanford football game last season.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There’s still no doubt: Woods is the biggest draw in the game and it isn’t particularly close. There are more talented young, dynamic, fun stars or potential stars in golf than ever before right now — but it will be years, if ever, before anyone of the group can command the attention that Woods still does today.

The youth movement is wildly fun for hardcore golf fans, but the reality seems to be thus far the rotating door of young stars doesn’t translate for the casual viewer. We’ve been captivated by Woods and all that he brings and represents for over 20 years now. That’s not changing overnight, and that’s just fine.

Tiger Woods, at 41-years-old, came off a 17-month-competitive layoff from real events and got tossed into a Torrey Pines South Course that looked more like a U.S. Open setup than a regular tour stop. He finished a couple shots behind Jason Day and Dustin Johnson — who shipped off with him early. The course was tough, and trying to extrapolate too much from what Tiger did himself this week is likely something worthless.

Instead, it’s what others are doing that represents the battle Tiger will fight in returning to the top, or winning another major, or just winning one event again. He’ll head across the globe to Dubai this week for the second leg of a four-tournament-in-five-weeks stretch, simply swapping out PGA Tour youngsters like Rahm and Rodgers for the Euro Tour’s Wang. The trek from San Diego to Dubai in consecutive weeks, a nearly 20-hour journey, would be a difficult ask for one of these spry young players. It’s something approaching scheduling malpractice for a 41-year-old with back problems that hasn’t played on consecutive weeks since Aug. 2015.

On such scheduling realities alone, it’s likely Riviera or the Honda Classic near his home in Florida where we see Woods start clicking again if he’s going to. His reconstructed swing won’t destroy his body, his miss was consistent, and his short game and scrambling seemed borderline vintage at times at Torrey Pines. Those are all fixable or rust-related problems, and maybe that’s why he’s flying around the world this week for more reps (although there is a PGA Tour stop just down the road in Phoenix).

But even if and when those issues are cured, he’ll have the same problem he had last week in San Diego, and this week in Dubai, and April at Augusta: a deep, talented young class of players that he inspired to take up the game.

If he never regains past glory, it’ll likely be that rather than his own flaws that stand as the impediment.