The gag factor is back

One of the advantages of being really good is that your opponents end up thinking you are even better than you really are. Remember back when Tiger Woods was truly Tiger -- that glorious stretch from late-1999 until mid-2002 when he was seemingly invincible? It appeared back then that many of his competitors went into Sunday pretty much conceding the outcome if Tiger was in contention.

It's starting to seem like that again. The greatest closer in the history of professional golf doesn't need help to take home the titles, but he's getting it. The gag factor is back. Players are once again assuming Woods will make no mistakes, and that leads to mistakes of their own.

The weekend was set up for perfect drama in the Ford Championship at Doral. Woods and Phil Mickelson were tied at 13-under-par going into the final 36 holes and the stage was set for a dramatic finish to rival Woods' victory over Mickelson last year. Only someone forgot to tell Lefty that he was supposed to run with the Tiger. Somehow you get the feeling that Woods would rather chew off his own arm than lose a head-to-head match-up with Mickelson. And now that the aura of invincibility once again envelopes Woods, all he needs to do is play well -- not great -- and his opponents will cooperate.

For the record, Tiger dusted Phil by eight strokes on the weekend.

As was the case during the first period of Woods' domination, it is the grinders who fare best against him. It is almost as if the big names put too much pressure on themselves, while the guys with lesser expectations hang around and take advantage of any opportunity that might be presented to them. See Rich Beem, Bob May and Ben Curtis as examples. David Toms, who is about a full wedge behind Woods off the tee, put on exactly the kind of gutsy performance that has stolen tournaments from Woods in the past, making six birdies in the first 16 holes in Sunday's final round to pull within two strokes of Woods. And when Tiger made a bogey on No. 17, the margin was one.

But then what happened on the final hole was exactly the kind of thing that happens to a player who is winning for the second time in four starts this year and for the 48th time in his PGA Tour career. Toms made a three-putt bogey on No. 18 that meant Woods only needed to bogey the treacherous closing hole to win. And that's exactly what he did. First, Mickelson caved on the weekend, and then Toms -- perhaps assuming there was no way Woods would make a bogey on No. 18 -- rammed his long birdie putt well past the hole and missed the come-backer for par.

Greatness, it seems, makes its own breaks.

It could very well be that the Mickelsons and Toms of the world have seen Woods' act for so long -- nearly a decade now -- that they easily fall into the self-fulfilling prophecy of ascribing too much perfection to him. Perhaps what is needed is someone younger, less intimidated and with less of a track record of losing to Woods. Perhaps what is needed is someone like Camilo Villegas, the 23-year-old rookie from Colombia who hits it a mile and plays without fear. If he had putted even ordinary at Doral, he would have taken home the top prize instead of getting his second tie for second place of this young season. Villegas seems to be for real.

Clearly, there is a new generation poised in the wings -- call them the Tiger Babies -- ready to make some noise on tour. Bubba Watson, J.B. Holmes and Villegas -- all of whom tee it up this week at the Honda Classic -- hit the ball farther than Woods and play with a carefree attitude driven by a love for the game rather than paralyzed by a fear of Tiger. Villegas was 13 when Woods turned pro, and Holmes was 14. They are the kind of talented athletes Tiger has attracted to the game: Kids with great skills who a generation ago might have chosen baseball, or basketball or soccer over golf. It would be wrong to say that Woods has paved the way for his own demise, but he certainly has produced the pipeline that will generate his successor as the best in the game. And these Tiger Babies are fun to watch.

Villegas is averaging 306.3 yards off the tee, and has hit 55.6 percent of his drives over 300 yards. Watson and Holmes are averaging 320.1 and 313.1 respectively with the driver. All three are also excellent with the wedge, and as long as they hit it that is a club they use quite a bit. The one who truly has the chance to emerge as a star is Villegas. He has the build of an athlete, possesses movie-star looks, is articulate and feeds off the boisterous galleries who follow him. He was the darling at Doral with the large Spanish-speaking population in the Miami area, but Villegas also has the star quality that speaks to any language. You get the feeling he could achieve the kind of stardom Sergio Garcia has failed to achieve.

For nearly 10 years now we have waited for a rival to emerge for Woods, but throughout his reign it has become clear that the only person who can beat Tiger is Tiger. Yet, in the back of your mind you always knew that the real rival for Woods was not yet on our radar screen. That he was some kid somewhere banging balls, motivated by the fact that Woods made the game cool for real athletes, and that he made the PGA Tour a place where a star can make the kind of money the big boys do in the teams sports.

The Tiger Babies are arriving. They are talented, powerful and fearless. This should be fun to watch.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine. His book, Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make You a Better Player, written with Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, is now available.