ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Thomas sidled up to Tiger Woods on the first tee of the PNC Championship and asked the 15-time major winner, “So, you’re gonna have Charlie, carry you, huh?”
Tiger smiled and said of his 12-year-old son with the mini-me mannerisms, “Yeah, I kinda feel bad for him.”
But make no mistake, Tiger was playing this week for one reason and one reason only and that is because he loves his son. One can only imagine how much Charlie has been pushing his dad to sign up for the spot the tournament saved for Tiger on the odd chance he could play this week. You also know Tiger must have had this date circled as he pushed his body during rehabilitation from multiple surgeries to his right leg and ankle.
“It shows just how much Tiger’s changed and how we all change as we get older,” Padraig Harrington said. “Priority is his family. He wouldn’t play golf this week if it wasn’t for his son.”
Nick Faldo can relate. He recalled one year taking five painkilling injections just to be able to tee it up with son Matthew.
“We’d do anything to tee it up here,” Sir Nick said.
Tiger fell in love with the PNC Championship last year. He never looked happier on the golf course and it’s not hard to imagine that this round was the highlight of a difficult year. When asked to name his favorite moment this time with Charlie, he answered, “Just everything. The whole…I wish I could have walked with him and been with him every step like I was last year.”
But the important thing was that he was there to witness Charlie’s early walk and putter raise on his 20-foot birdie putt at No. 4 and see him sink a 60-foot practice putt on the 12th green just as Tiger and JT had too.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tiger said. “I don’t think any one of us has, right, three 60-footers going down. One tie, all tie”.
No matter what player you asked they all were amazed that Tiger was making his ballyhooed return to something resembling competitive golf for the first time since his SUV flipped down an embankment in Los Angeles in February. Ticket sales were limited to 1,000 spectators and 1,001 of them surrounded the first tee to marvel at seeing Tiger playing golf less than 10 months after it was feared he could lose a leg or never walk again. Lee Trevino, 82, who gave young Charlie a clinic on Friday that went viral, may have put it best.
“If I wasn’t playing, I’d be watching Tiger, too, believe me,” Trevino said.
Tiger and Charlie teamed to shoot 10-under 62 at Ritz-Carlton Golf Club and trail leaders Stewart Cink and son Reagan by three strokes with one round to go in the scramble format team competition. But the score in itself is immaterial; it’s the fun that Tiger and Charlie had playing with good buddies Justin and Mike Thomas that they’ll remember.
“We’re pulling pranks on each other and giving each other some under-the-breath remarks that I’m glad they didn’t capture,” Tiger said.
He continues to complain that his swing lacks speed and that he doesn’t have the endurance yet, but there were enough moments where Tiger made you believe that he could climb the mountain again if he still wants to. He ticked off three shots that stood out beginning at the par-5, third hole:
“It was a 220-yard 4-iron which I hit probably 18 feet behind the hole,” he said. “I hit a good one at 14, the par 5 (when he roasted a 3-wood from about 260) and I smoked a 7-iron at 17. I didn’t believe I could get it there but it was one of my old shots, so to be able to turn that thing down and hit that thing and squeeze it out there like that that was nice, even though it wasn’t pin-high, but just the shot, the feel and the shape is what I was seeing.”
There was also the tee shot at the 11th hole that rolled past the drive of Justin Thomas, one of the longer hitters in the game.
“I hit it pretty good and as soon as both of us, as soon as his ball took that big bounce we looked at each other and I was like, oh, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be this one because I think it just launched and yeah, that was a shot to the ego.”
Still, it was hit-n-giggle golf, where Tiger didn’t have to play any foul balls and he was able to use a golf cart. His message continued to be to cool your heels on the comeback talk, that his game is a long way off from being Tour ready.
“If I want to compete out here at the Tour level I’m going to have to get the endurance back and hit thousands upon thousands of golf balls,” he said. “Just takes time.”
But Trevino, for one, said don’t bet against Tiger.
“Whatever time limit you give him, he’ll beat it,” he said.
And as we’ve all learned, never bet against Tiger.