‘I want to be the one to beat him’: As Tiger heats up, today’s stars enthused by possibility of facing him in peak form

March 21, 2018

AUSTIN, Tex. — A compelling grill-room debate has surfaced in the nascent days of Tiger Woods’s latest comeback: How would today’s young stars fare against peak Tiger Woods, or at least some semblance of Woods in his prime?

This week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play event at Austin Country Club will not provide any answers, because Woods is not in the field. Still, with Tiger exhibiting flashes of his old form in his first five starts of 2018, the question remains tantalizing.

“I never got to face him in his prime, so I don’t know, maybe I felt cheated,” says Rory McIlroy, who on Sunday closed out his win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in what could be described as Tiger-like fashion (five birdies in the last six holes). “I don’t know if he’ll get back to where he was in the 2000s, but it’s nice to see him back now and I’d like to play him at his best.”

World No. 11 Jason Day is well aware that Woods humbled a generation of Tour pros, but that hasn’t quelled his desire to face peak Woods, either. Win, lose or get thumped, Day says the experience would be a net positive.

“If that did happen to you, ” Day says of a Woods beatdown, “if you had the right attitude and handled it the right way, it might actually help you in the end.”

Adds Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, “If nothing else, it would show you what you needed to work on.”

Like many players of his generation, Jordan Spieth grew up — and was inspired by — watching Woods blow away fields, so the possibility of squaring off late on Sunday with the reenergized 14-time major winner is irresistible.

“You just think how cool would it be to take down the best player maybe of all time,” Spieth says.

Not all players are so ebullient about the idea of a Woods rebirth, in particular some of those pros who lived through Woods’s most dominant years. When Pat Perez, who is the same age as Woods and grew up on the California junior circuit playing against him, hears youngsters chirping about wanting to face peak Tiger, he says he can’t help but chuckle.

“They’re out of their minds,” Perez said Tuesday. “They don’t want the old Tiger out here because the old Tiger didn’t look at you, didn’t talk to you and didn’t care if you lived or died.”

Perez has seen every stage of Woods’s evolution, from dominant amateur to storied major champion to aging golfer with an aching back and chip yips. And in Perez’s estimation no player today could hold a candle to Woods in his prime.

“When you look at Tiger, he beat the best players of his era,” Perez says. “Everyone had a shot of him and nobody could get it done. It would be the same today.”

Matt Kuchar, 39, also came up the ranks with Woods and had a front-row seat to his heroics. “I saw him at his best and it was awesome — it really was,” Kuchar says. “There is a bit of be careful of what you wish for, but as a sportsman, I guess that’s what you want.”

Day certainly does, in the worst way.

“I want him 100 percent,” he says. “I want to be the one to beat him. I said that as a 17-year-old and everybody jumped on me as a kid who didn’t know what I was saying. But I still do.”