Tiger's impact felt across generations

They were at various stages of their youth, from diapers to preschool to cut-down golf clubs, their paths to golf stardom far from set. But you can bet they took note of the guy in the red shirt -- or soon would -- as golf became a serious pursuit.

Tiger Woods could not help but inspire the stars of today, his dominance during their formative years so pronounced as their golf lives were taking shape.

"There's nobody who had more influence in my golf game than Tiger,'' said Jordan Spieth, who is No. 1 in the world and coming off a season that saw him win five times, including two major championships.

Spieth, now 22, was just 3 years old when Woods won the 1997 Masters, the first of his 14 major championships. If Spieth was too young to take notice, he certainly could not miss Woods' accomplishments as the golfer piled up victories through his formative years.

Jason Day, 28 and Rory McIlroy, 26, have expressed similar sentiments. Combined, they happen to be the top-3 ranked players in the world.

They make up a group of golfers who have stepped into the void left by Woods, who has sustained injuries the past two years and whose future is very much in doubt with a 40th birthday this week -- just another reminder that he is nearly 18 years older than Spieth.

As a new year is about to begin, there are nine players in the top 20 who are under age 30, and in some manner they were influenced by Woods.

Even players who are closer to Woods in age, such as Bubba Watson, 37, could not help but take notice of a player who would accumulate so many trophies.

"I begged him to let me play practice rounds with him and I wanted to watch him,'' said Watson, who recalled being in high school and watching Woods dominate that '97 Masters where he won by 12 shots. "He's always asked me why don't I ask questions to get better at the game? For me, I don't ask questions, I just watch. I learn by watching and listening, so I just watched.

"When we played practice rounds, I just watched how he did everything, how he went about it, so that's where I learned. How would you not want to learn from the best player of our generation? I learned a lot from him just by watching him and watching how he did his job on the course.''

Adam Scott is 35 and played with Woods for the first time during a 2000 practice round in Las Vegas just prior to the U.S. Open. Woods had already won two majors and Scott was just getting started; both worked with instructor Butch Harmon.

"He inspired all of us to play golf like he did and it was kind of at that point a transition of having a wardrobe full of Shark (Greg Norman) to Nike swooshes when I played and every kid was buying the shirt he wore when he won the Masters or his hat or something like that,'' said Scott, who said he was in his final year of high school in Australia when Woods won his first major at Augusta National.

"I was really lucky then to work with Butch when Butch was still working with Tiger. I feel so fortunate to have played practice rounds with Tiger at majors in the 2000, 2001 and really see up close what is the best golf I've ever seen -- just head and shoulders above the rest.

"It's hard to explain to Jordan coming out now how he was just so much better than everyone at that point. We're all quick to forget that sometimes.''

During the time Scott cited, Woods was in the midst of winning four straight major championships from the 2000 U.S. Open (by 15 shots) through the 2001 Masters. After capturing the 2002 U.S. Open, Woods had won seven of the previous 11 majors and eight overall.

He had 32 PGA Tour victories and was still months away from his 27th birthday. Now, as he hits his 40s, Woods has those 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour titles.

"Just the dominance,'' Spieth said when asked how Woods influenced him. "The way that he was able to bring it in the majors. Really, he brought it in every tournament. He didn't play 25 events a year and the ones he did play, he often won or almost won. So just kind of the way that he was able to kind of get into contention and be in contention and be at that highest kind of mental part of the game week in and week out and major in and major out.

"He did what we were able to kind of do this season -- he did that for 15 years straight. It took a lot out of us this year, and to imagine doing that, which is obviously the goal, it's really special.''

Woods' impact was felt and admired among all ages. Jack Nicklaus, after a 1996 practice round with Woods at Augusta National, remarked that he saw Woods winning more Masters than "Arnold [Palmer] and I combined'' -- which is 10. Woods owns four green jackets, but the prediction served more to suggest that the Golden Bear was well aware of the talent he possessed, and that greatness would not be a surprise.

Gary Player, who recently turned 80 and is as well known for his attention to health as he is his nine major titles, praised Woods for helping bring fitness to golf. Woods was far from the first player to pay attention to conditioning, but he certainly helped make it more mainstream.

McIlroy is a good example of that, having transformed his body since turning pro as a pudgy 18-year-old from Northern Irleland. McIlroy had photos of Woods on his bedroom wall and wrote the golfer a letter as a kid.

"The one thing I've learned from Tiger, from getting to know him, is how hard he works,'' McIlroy said. "The ones who work the hardest do the best.''

Patrick Reed wears red on Fridays and Sundays in honor of Woods. "The best player to ever live when I was growing up wore black pants, a red shirt,'' Reed explained. "I was growing up watching him. I always thought it would be cool to wear black and red on Sunday. Obviously there's something behind it.''

Woods might have had the biggest impact on Day, who soon after turning pro brashly predicted he'd get to No. 1. Having done that in 2015 a few weeks after capturing his first major championship at the PGA Championship, Day on numerous occasions noted how he sought Woods out for advice.

Soon after he turned 12, Day's father passed away. He had a tough upbringing in Australia and turned to golf, devouring information about Woods. It took some coaxing from his longtime caddie, Col Swatton, but Day eventually approached Woods. In 2015, they played numerous practice rounds together and became frequent texting buddies.

"Jason's probably asked the most questions, by far,'' Woods said in his recent interview with Time.

If there is one area where Woods' influence has not been as great as expected, it was in the emergence of minority golfers. His debut as a pro 19 years ago, as well as his '97 Masters victory, figured to trigger more participation and interest in golf among minorities.

But change has been slow, even with the influx of programs to capitalize on Woods' success, such as the First Tee and other affordable avenues. Harold Varner III, who made his debut on the PGA Tour in October, is just the second African-American golfer since Woods to earn his PGA Tour card.

And yet Woods' influence was felt just about everywhere else. Television ratings. Purses. Interest among casual fans. And among players who were both mesmerized by his abilities and wondering just how they were supposed to compete.

"He was just ahead of me (in school),'' said Matt Kuchar, who played with Woods during the first two rounds of the 1998 Masters -- Woods the defending champion, Kuchar the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. "He had just left Stanford and just started crushing it. It was quite amazing.

"It wasn't like he was a role model or got me into the game. But certainly he set the bar for everyone coming up. Everyone behind him and even everyone older than him. You had to find a way to get better somehow because he had set the bar so high.''