By Larry Fine
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The new generation of great players, including Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, have often talked of how Tiger Woods inspired them to pursue golf greatness and how cool it would be to go up against him on the big stage.
However, twice U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange has offered a word of caution to the young guns as Woods takes the next step on his comeback after back injuries.
"They’ve never really seen Tiger play at his best," former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Strange told Reuters on Tuesday. "Be careful what you ask for. He was very good in his day.
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"From what I saw at Bay Hill he looked very comfortable. Tiger looked like he was comfortable in his own skin and on the stage again. And this is the biggest stage," he said about the fifth-place finish achieved by 42-year-old Woods, who was runner-up the week before at the Valspar Championship.
Paul Casey, who won at Bay Hill and has done consistently well at Augusta National, with a fourth and two sixth-place finishes in the last three Masters, said he hoped the young crew get to experience a Masters Sunday with Woods in the hunt.
"It would be brilliant, I'd love to see it," England's Casey told reporters under the oak tree in front of the clubhouse.
"Rory (McIlroy) made me chuckle a little bit talking about the hoopla surrounding Tiger when he came back in Los Angeles, and how he said it must be something like a half-shot penalty a round.
"I was thinking, 'You should have seen him the last 18 years'.
"I actually want Tiger to continue his trajectory, I want him to win (if it's not me)," added Casey.
"I want those guys, the younger guys, like Rory, Justin Thomas, Rickie (Fowler) and Spieth, who have never seen him at his best, to experience that.
"Is it intimidating? Yes. Could it be a shot penalty or something like that? Maybe. I’d love for them to experience that."
Former Masters champion Fred Couples played a practice round on Tuesday with Woods, Phil Mickelson and Belgian Thomas Pieters and said Tiger looked great on the course while the atmosphere accompanying their grouping was electric.
"When you get paired in this tournament with Tiger, the energy is unreal. When you get paired with Phil, the energy is unreal. It was fun. It was very loud, very fun and they hit some very good shots."
Couples said Woods and 47-year-old Mickelson, who recently ended a personal win drought by beating Justin Thomas in a playoff at the WGC-Mexico, could be battling for the title this week.
"I think come Sunday they may be paired together. They’re playing extremely well, they love the course and they’re going to do very, very well," said Couples.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)