- Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
- Covered golf for more than 20 years
- Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University
ORLANDO, Fla. — It is no surprise that Justin Thomas and his dad, Mike, will be paired with Tiger Woods and his son, Charlie, during the opening round of the PNC Championship on Saturday.
They did so during the first round a year ago, and they are neighbors in South Florida.
But what was interesting is what the older Thomas — a former club pro and still a teacher to his son — said about playing with Woods recently.
“It’s crazy how good he’s hitting it and how far he’s hitting, for what he’s been through,” Mike Thomas said Thursday at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.
That ought to add a bit more juice to what already promises to be a high-intensity weekend for what is normally a low-key, offseason golf event among major champions and their family members.
Woods will play competitive golf for the first time in a year — since he and Charlie, now 12, tied for seventh at this same tournament a year ago, in fact.
A Feb. 23 car crash in which Woods suffered significant injuries to his right leg and foot left him hospitalized for weeks and immobile for months. Only recently has he emerged to show the progress he has made, and it includes playing golf with his son — and getting to ride in a golf cart — at a time that would have seemed inconceivable in the aftermath of the accident.
“My excitement level is high just for him being out here and being somewhere other than his house and getting to see a lot of familiar faces,” said Justin Thomas, a 14-time PGA Tour winner who has probably spent more time with Woods in the last several months than any other player.
“And know spending time with Charlie is a huge deal to him. So I know he’s excited for that part.
“In terms of competing, I think his expectations are very low. But at the same time, he is who he is for a reason, so I’m sure he’ll be pissed off if he doesn’t play well.”
Woods, who turns 46 on Dec. 30, tried to keep the expectations down during his news conference at the Hero World Challenge on Nov. 30. He was self-deprecating as to how far he was hitting the ball, and cautioned that he was a long way from playing competitive Tour golf.
He acknowledged that “hit and giggle” golf might be in his future, and so here he is at the PNC, with a Friday morning pro-am time a first real opportunity for the world to get a glimpse of his game.
“We all know him well enough to know that he’s never going to admit to being close to where he’d like to be,” Mike Thomas said. “More importantly, where he would normally be compared to now. More importantly is his shot, whatever he has right now. … he’s still got some speed. He’s got some length. Hits a lot of really, really flush shots. I mean, I was surprised.”
A year ago, Charlie Woods stole the show, amazing those who watched how similar his mannerisms were to his father, who has won 15 major championships and 82 PGA Tour titles.
But now the focus will again be squarely on Tiger.
“It shows how Tiger’s changed,” said Padraig Harrington, the European Ryder Cup captain who is playing with his son, Paddy. “Let’s face it. Tiger was always great to play against at his peak. But he was a hired professional. He let nobody in. Nobody knew who Tiger was. “But now as a parent he’s a completely different person. He’s changed. There’s no way he would be playing any golf at this stage right now only for he wants to have that experience with his son. As you grow older, you realize there’s more to life. Your family becomes the center of your life. And it’s clear with Tiger that’s the case.
“He would do anything to give his son an experience he can’t forget. Tiger doesn’t need to be playing golf this week. I’m sure if this wasn’t on now you wouldn’t see him at least for three or four more months.”
Regardless how Woods plays, the speculation as to when he will return is bound to be endless. Can he return in time for the Masters? Is The Open at St Andrews more likely? Does he play at all in 2022?
The PNC is far more subdued than any other public golf he would play. It’s just 36 holes. He’s allowed to use a golf cart. And the format is a scramble, which means both players hit a tee shot, play from the best one, and continue that process until the hole is completed.
Last year, with a sizable advance from the junior tees, Charlie often hit drives well into play that mean his famous dad didn’t even need to bother. It will be interesting to see how often Tiger hits a driver or any tee shots, given his situation.
“I’m sure some days he’s like, “Oh, wow, I can do this, and there’s some days where it’s like, “Oh, I’m not really sure,”‘ Justin Thomas said. “But (playing this week) is very impressive and unbelievable.
“But I know that he somewhere deep in there had this circled on his calendar of wanting to come back here.”
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