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Jordan Spieth finished No. 7 in the FedEx Cup even though he didn’t have status on the PGA Tour at the start of the year. Hideki Matsuyama became the first rookie to win the Japan Golf Tour money title, and he didn’t even turn pro until April.

And this list of characters doesn’t include McIlroy, who began the year at No. 1 and is just now starting to emerge from a slump.

“You’ve got to play really well to win,” McIlroy said. “I think that’s why you see so many first-time winners, because the field is so deep, and it is tough to win out here. But I think golf is in great shape.”

Comparing eras is never easy, though Woods detected a big difference from a generation ago.

At the end of the 1990s and early in the 2000s, golf was strong at the top _ Woods, David Duval, Mickelson, Els, Vijay Singh. But there was a reasonable gap between the biggest stars and the next level. From 1999 through 2002, there was a massive gap between Woods and the other stars.

Woods said a player now has to be consistent to be among the best.

The World Challenge is the end of the year for the majority of the field _ a few players are headed to Thailand next week _ and it should set the table for a fascinating season in 2014. Stenson and Scott will try to sustain their excellence, along with a newcomer such as Spieth.

Woods said that he still looks at the way players hit the ball to determine who has game, though the direction is different. When he first joined the tour in 1996, it was players who could work the ball both ways. Now he looks at the players who can maneuver the trajectory.

“You don’t see shot-makers like you used to. The ball doesn’t curve like it used to,” Woods said. “It just doesn’t move as much. But you look at the guys who are pretty good players at the top. They cannot really shape the golf ball necessarily, but they can move their trajectory up and down. I think that’s where the shape has changed. They don’t shape it as much from right to left, but more in altitude.”

After this year, the tournament is going through a change in latitude.

This is the 14th year the World Challenge is held at Sherwood, a Jack Nicklaus design with emerald fairways set against the brown foothills of the Santa Monica mountains. The Tiger Woods Foundation announced last month that it is moving to Isleworth outside Orlando.