Tiger Woods: PGA Tour's Memorial tournament marks return of 15-time major winner

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Tiger Woods at the Memorial tournament in 2009
Woods won three Memorial titles in succession from 1999, added a fourth in 2009 and extended his record to five in 2012

Here comes another Tiger Woods "Hello World" moment, as the 15 times major champion begins his latest comeback at this week's Memorial tournament in Ohio.

But, among multiple returns from injuries and self inflicted sabbatical, never has the 44-year-old come back to a more changed environment. Woods has not competed since finishing 68th at the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles in mid-February.

Since then there has been the obvious and devastating impact of coronavirus which means that the nine remaining events in this season's PGA Tour season will be played in a bubble without spectators, despite initial plans to have them present.

But while the world has been changed beyond recognition, the golf landscape has also significantly altered.

Woods returns in a field that includes nine of the world's top 10 players and to a sport that is feeling younger by the moment. It was typified by Collin Morikawa's thrilling play off win over Justin Thomas in the Workday Charity Open last Sunday.

Morikawa is just 23 and this was his second PGA Tour win. It came on the same Muirfield Village course to be used this week when the greens will play significantly faster with more challenging pin positions.

The young Californian turned professional only last year. He possesses a stunning long game with immaculate iron play reminiscent of Woods in his prime.

At number 13 Morikawa is now a spot ahead of Woods in the world rankings. It might not mean much materially but climbing above such an iconic figure, the reigning Masters champion, at such a young age certainly carries symbolic significance,

Morikawa is part of an exciting emerging generation that includes the explosive Matthew Wolff, who was second to Bryson DeChambeau in Detroit the previous week, and the ever improving Norwegian Victor Hovland (22).

Having finished third last week, Hovland has competed in all five events played since the PGA Tour returned last month and he has been increasingly impressive in each of them.

During the last three tournaments, Europe's most exciting young talent led tee to green statistics and, having won in Puerto Rico in February, a second professional victory might not be far away.

Australia's Adam Scott is the only top-10 player not involved this week and of the remaining nine only Dustin Johnson (36) and Webb Simpson (34) are older than the 31-year-old world number one, Rory McIlroy.

Woods, like the rest of us, will notice the biggest change in DeChambeau (26). The American world number seven has added yardage commensurate with the muscle poundage he put on during lockdown.

At 323.8 yards he is on course to break the record for the longest average driving distance for a PGA Tour season. DeChambeau is already 27.4 yards longer than the tour's mean distance off the tee.

And it is yielding results. The bulked up, idiosyncratic, self styled 'golf scientist' shared third, eighth and sixth positions before winning in Detroit two weeks ago.

He was the Memorial champion in 2018 and will be looking to add a second title at Jack Nicklaus' tournament this week.

DeChambeau is probably the most extreme example of the way golf has changed since Woods first and famously said "hello world" when he made his professional debut at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open.

The man with a record-equalling 82 PGA Tour titles set the athletic template for a modern game where clubhead speed is key. Yes, touch around the greens remains important but these days - more than ever before - distance is king.

Putting for dough, as the saying goes, is whole lot easier when your average par-four approach shot is little more than 100 yards, as was the case for DeChambeau in Detroit.

It is a long established progression but the profusion of distance and exciting young talent - we have not mentioned world number two Jon Rahm (25) and the precocious Sungjae Im (22) - means the trend is accelerating like never before.

Of course, Woods has seen many a young pretender come and go throughout a lengthy, often punctuated but glorious career.

As he prepares for the next instalment in the surreal surroundings of the Covid-19 world, he will also be aware that the game he changed forever continues to evolve at an ever increasing rate.

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