AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Twenty years ago, a 21-year-old changed the game.
Tiger Woods won the Masters Tournament and his success reverberated in places the game had never reached before. There was a cultural impact, a socioeconomic impact, a financial impact. Other effects, we've come to learn, have taken a generation to develop.
How else can we explain the game's current landscape at its most elite level? How else can we justify the swarm of uncommonly young players winning more often and more consistently than at any point since then?
"The belief level has changed a lot," explained former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. "Just on a conscious level out here, it's OK to win big tournaments in your early 20s [based on] what Tiger did in his young career."
Nowhere is this idea more conspicuous than Augusta National Golf Club. On a course once considered the domain of wily veterans who needed years of experience to ascertain every small nuance, one on which players had to build up an immune system of mental fortitude to combat common cases of frazzled nerves, this week's pre-tournament lineup of potential Masters contenders reads like a who's who of fresh-faced flat-bellies, each one hitting the ball longer and straighter than the last.
Already in this calendar year, PGA Tour winners have included Hideki Matsuyama (25), Justin Thomas (23), Jordan Spieth (23) and Jon Rahm (22). None of them are one-week wonders, either, simply catching lightning in a bottle for four consecutive rounds. Each is ranked in the top 12 on the Official World Golf Ranking, a tier formerly reserved for more experienced pros who gradually climbed that list.
Atop of it right now stands Dustin Johnson, who has won each of his past three tournament starts. A tall, lean, athletic shot-masher who looks more like a small forward or wide receiver, Johnson would seemingly be the poster child for this current group of young superstars.
Except for one small problem.
At 32, he's actually the second-oldest winner on the PGA Tour this year, just one year shy of Marc Leishman. "I didn't even know that," Johnson said. "Am I considered an old player now? Geez, I mean, the guys that are the younger guys on tour, I guess I can say the younger guys, I feel like I'm one of the young guys, but they're very good. There's a lot of great players, a lot of great young players." He pauses for a moment before considering his own place in this stratosphere, then adds: "Myself included."
There are plenty of theories as to why golfers at varying degrees of young ages are experiencing so much success right now. One is that these players grew up knowing that it wasn't impossible for a 21-year-old to win the Masters. Those aforementioned four players -- Matsuyama, Thomas, Spieth and Rahm -- were toddlers when Woods won in 1997. He was their Roger Bannister. He showed them what was possible, disproving the tired notion that only experienced players could triumph at the year's first major. It's no coincidence that Spieth's victory occurred when he was 22. He knew it was possible, because he'd seen it before.
Here's another theory: Unlike those of the previous generation, they never endured sweeping equipment changes during their careers. A player who is currently 50 started playing the game with persimmon woods and balata balls, then transitioned into a world of 460 cc driver heads and Pro-V1s. A player half his age never dealt with similar concerns.
And here's yet another, also based on technological advancements: Improved instructional methods have helped young players understand their games at an earlier age. Talented amateurs of previous generations knew how to hit the ball and get it into the hole; those of this generation know not only how, but why.
"Things have gotten so much more scientific in approach to golf now," Jason Day said. "Guys have TrackMans and mental coaches and swing coaches and short-game coaches. I mean you name it, they've got it, because once again, you're an individual as a player, but you have a team of people around you to make you the best player you can."
Said McDowell: "When I was a kid, you just give me a driver and hit it down the middle and away you go. It's crazy how ready these guys are now and how professional they are. I lose track of how many young kids I play with now and I just shake my head and go, man, this kid is ready."
The truth is, an explanation can be found in any combination of these theories. There isn't one that doesn't uncover reasons for the others, like Russian nesting dolls of explanations for this younger generation collectively reaching success so quickly.
Another truth is that no matter the explanation, the end result is clearly obvious.
"They just play better than the older guys," Sergio Garcia said. "The young players are really good."
When the green jacket is awarded Sunday evening, there's a strong possibility that the player placing his arms into its sleeves is one who was still a toddler when Tiger Woods won his first. It very well might be a guy who has lived his entire life knowing that winning a Masters title could indeed become a reality at such a young age, because he has never known a world in which that hadn't happened.
From Matsuyama to Thomas to Spieth (again) to Rahm, there are plenty of worthy contenders from the 25-and-under set, players who might not have been considered part of this category before the last generation.