December 17, 2021

What We Saw And Heard In Tiger Woods’ First Public Round Back At The PNC Championship

ORLANDO — Lee Trevino never passes up a good joke opportunity, and this one was a layup. Fifteen grown men and two grown women bordered a walkway, at 7:15 in the morning on Friday, at a Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, to watch a 45-year-old man walk into a building.

“Tiger’ll be here in just a minute,” quipped the 82-year-old,” and I’ll be glad to see him. Damn sure knew y’all weren’t here to see me.”

He is correct, for this PNC Championship may as well change its name to the Woods Show. Plural. Last year, at this event all eyes were on the little guy. It was the golf world’s first look at Charlie Woods, and his 15-time major champion father was something of an afterthought. The roles have flipped this year because this marks Tiger Woods’ remarkable return to (somewhat) competitive golf less than 10 months after a horrific car accident that nearly claimed his right leg. It’s like that song by The Police: Every move he makes, every swing he takes, I’ll be watching you. Even closer than normal.

Woods turned up to the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club shortly before 8 a.m. Charlie, who at 12 has grown only marginally since last year but has definitely filled out, sprung out of the car and darted straight for the range. Oh, to be young. Dad strolled rather gingerly into the clubhouse, his cadence measured, his limp noticeable. Charlie had almost finished his first bag of balls before Dad emerged from the air conditioning. Once he picked up a wedge, it looked … normal. The same clippy sound at impact, which almost sounds thin if you’ve never heard it before. The same little credit-card divots. The same tight draw with the irons. Only one noticeable difference: the time taken between shots. It’s abundantly clear that Woods is here because Charlie desperately wanted to be, and a father can only resist so much begging from his son. This was only his second or third round of golf since the accident. He’s pushing it.

Team Woods headed for the first tee after a brief short-game session. Tiger gossiped with Matt Kuchar about Bryson DeChambeau’s latest ball-speed feats. He truly is the talk of the tour. Woods eventually hit his first public tee shot since the crash, a wipey fade down the right side with a new TaylorMade stealth D-stick. Dare we say he felt a bit of nerves?

“You know what, I actually did,” Woods said. “Haven’t hit too many tee shots, and then all of a sudden the wind has come off the left and my little heel cut thing I’m seeing and all of a sudden there’s people off the tee box.”

It’s a miss he battled all day with the longer clubs. He’s still not quite comfortable pushing into the ground with his right leg to generate speed. The driver swing is a bit wristy at the bottom. On the par-4 sixth, he asked caddie Joe LaCava what the carry is on the left bunker—260, back into the breeze. It’d require all the speed he’s got. Woods teed it up high with a high draw in mind but bailed at the last second. A big push right off the toe. “Commit to it!” he said in disgust. As Charlie walked by, he muttered not-so-under-his-breath: “Nice shot.” Woods chucked his tee at his boy.

Woods is still compensating throughout the bag, and he knows it, but the best in the world can compensate. Woods drove it mostly straight on the front nine but came up short and right with the few long irons he hit. He did, however, flash the short game he claimed can go toe-to-toe with any player in the world at the minute. The sample size is small, but we see no reason to doubt him. A pitch on the par-5 fifth crawled out to tap-in range. He couldn’t help but hit some chips after his group would finish a hole—he has only one speed in competition—and made crisp contact on virtually every one.

If you only watched Woods’ top tracer, you’d think he’s quite close to a return. He’s only one club short at the minute­—205 used to be a stock number for a hard 5-iron, but he pulled 4 from that number on the par-3 eigth. “It’s a perfect 5,” he told TGR Ventures Vice President Rob McNamara after marking his ball. “I just can’t quite hit it that hard.”

If you only watched Woods between shots, you wouldn’t be so optimistic. He grimaced a few times. He had to be strategic with each step, so he could get back to his cart without incident. Even in his prime Woods seemed to always move in slow-motion. On this day, he looked like he was walking through water. He decided midway through the back nine that he’d reached his pitch count, content to ride his cart up by the green so he could chip, putt, and needle. As he hit practice pitches into the 15th green, Charlie tip-toed into his line of play and caught the ball on the fly. He tossed it back to his dad, who’d switched to a baseball grip. Swing and a miss. The Woodses are best friends.

In his first public comments since the crash, Woods insisted he was a long way off competing at the tour level. No one seemed to believe him after watching him grind on the range during the Hero World Challenge. All the Internet saw were quick-cuts of swings on a perfectly flat range. Watching Woods on Friday was a reminder that tournament golf consists of so much more than the golf swing. Perhaps we’ll start believing him and resist getting ahead of ourselves, even when he hits a low-spinning wedge to tap-in range. At least until he doesn’t have to hop in the cart to go tap it in.

“I couldn’t walk this golf course even right now, and it’s flat,” Woods said. “I don’t have the endurance. My leg is not quite right yet and it’s going to take time. I told you in the Bahamas, I’m a long way, way from playing tournament golf. This is hit, hop in a cart and move about my business just like I would at Medalist. Being able to play tournament golf and being able to recover, practice and train and hit balls after a round and do all of the things that I need to be at a high level, I’m a long way away from that.”

But what if he could reduce tournament golf to mostly just the golf swing, petition the PGA Tour to let him use a cart? If there’s one person they’d make an exception for …

“I wouldn’t, no. No. Absolutely not,” he said. “Not for a PGA Tour event, no. That’s just not who I am. That’s not how I’ve always been, and if I can’t play at that level, I can’t play at that level.”