What’s Charlie Woods’ golf game like? We asked his high school coach

charlie woods with his high school golf team at the benjamin school

Charlie Woods plays golf for the Benjamin School, in South Florida. The team is coached by Toby Harbeck, sixth from far left.

courtesy toby harbeck

In the lead-up to the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 1A golf state championship last month, Toby Harbeck had a decision to make.

Harbeck, the head boys’ golf coach and an English teacher for nearly 40 years at the Benjamin School, a private institution in Palm Beach Gardens, needed to determine which of his 12 players would take the fifth and final spot on the squad bound for states. Harbeck had a reserve of eager players from which to choose, including a 14-year-old freshman named Charlie Woods.

Charlie, perhaps you’ve heard, is the son of 15-time major winner Tiger Woods and a considerable talent in his own right. You’ve likely seen Charlie competing alongside Tiger in recent years at the PNC Championship, where father and son are back in the mix again this week at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, in Orlando. Charlie has all the tools — power, touch, club twirls, cheeky quips — but to give you an idea of the kind of competition he’s up against at his school, his 74.3 scoring average last season was bettered by four of his teammates and quite a way behind the 70.4 pace of the team leader.  

Still, Charlie had something going for him that had nothing to do with his last name: experience and success at the state championship host site, the El Campeon course at Mission Resort and Club, just outside Orlando. In September, Charlie had shot 71-66 at El Campeon in qualifying for another event. A year before that, as a 13-year-old, he had shot 80-68 in the same qualifier on the same course. With three sub-par rounds in four attempts, Charlie already had proven he could handle what is a tough, tight and, for Florida, uncharacteristically hilly layout.

“So I got to thinking about it,” Harbeck, who is 66, told me the other day. “Here’s a kid who is not afraid of this golf course. I mean, for you to break 72 on this golf course is saying something. That’s how hard it is. The fact that he’s got three or four rounds below par, I said, ‘You know what? I got to play him in the state finals.’”

It was a bold move given Charlie hadn’t played in either the district or regional events in the prelude to state, and the decision wasn’t universally lauded. As Harbeck said, it “kind of upset the cart a little bit with some of my other guys. But sometimes I got to go with a gut feeling.”

As the fifth player in a format that counts only the four best of each team’s scores in each round, Charlie had a specific charge: play well but don’t go flag-hunting. “The number five guy’s job is if one of the four in front goes south on me, I got to be able to use his score,” Harbeck said.

As a safety net, Charlie shot an unflashy 78-76 in the 36-hole event, with both of his scores counting toward his team’s total. He finished 26th overall among 98 players, but his individual standing was moot because his team accomplished its mission, storming back from a six-shot deficit late in the second round to win by one. For the fourth time — and the third under Harbeck’s watch — the Benjamin School were state champs.

“I know the numbers weren’t terrific,” Harbeck said of Charlie’s scores. “But Charlie did exactly what I asked him to do. I couldn’t have been happier with the way it all turned out.”

HARBECK WAS REFERRING TO the state tournament but, when you listen to the coach talk, it’s clear the sentiment could also apply to the entirety of Charlie’s rookie season as a high school golfer. Trying to blaze a trail in the same pursuit that made your father a global superstar can’t be easy, but Harbeck will tell you Charlie is doing a commendable job in that quest.

Charlie and his big sister, Sam, have attended the Benjamin School since they were tykes. He began playing junior golf at an early age but didn’t come into the public eye until the 2020 PNC Championship, when, as an 11-year-old, his spirited play and uncanny Tiger-like mannerisms captured the golf world’s imagination. A year later at the PNC, Team Woods ran off a tournament-record 11 straight birdies and finished second. Tiger & Charlie Fever was fully on.

At Charlie’s first PNC appearance, in 2020, there was no mistaking that he was his father’s son. getty images

As an eighth-grader, Charlie considered trying out for his school’s varsity team but then reconsidered. “He said he wasn’t ready,” Harbeck said. “I said, ‘That’s fine.’ I don’t push him.” As a freshman, though, Charlie was ready. In the 72-hole tryout, he medaled with three rounds under par. But then he needed to prove himself all over again…and again…and again. That’s the thing about high school golf: many coaches, Harbeck among them, make even their best players earn, through intra-team qualifying, one of the six to eight spots typically available in tournaments. Play lousily and you’re riding the pine. Harbeck said Charlie played in 12 of their team’s 16 events last season.  

Charlie didn’t take long to prove he belonged. Early in the season, the team received an invitation to play in a tournament in Naples, about a three-hour drive away. Harbeck could take only five players, so he extended the invitation to his four seniors and let them choose a fifth representative. They picked Charlie. “There were 14 teams and Charlie won the whole damn thing,” Harbeck said. “He shot 65 the first day, and we won as a team also. So that was kind of like, hmm…”

That event also brought into focus Charlie’s growing celebrity, with galleries of up to 50 strong — not something you see often at high school tournaments — tracking his every move. Charlie’s teammates doubled as his bodyguards. “They were like shooing people away,” Harbeck said. “Hey, leave him alone. We’re talking to him right now, or We’re doing something — the boys are very protective of him, because he’s part of our team. He’s not Charlie Woods. He’s part of the Benjamin School team.”

During one of the tournament rounds, Harbeck was chatting with Charlie on the 8th hole, a straight-away par-5 lined by condos down the right side. “I look up,” Harbeck recalled, “and I’m watching all these doors to the condos opening up and all these people come out because they knew he was there.” On the second day, after inclement weather had suspended play, more than a hundred players, coaches, spectators and members took shelter in the clubhouse. Harbeck gathered his team at an out-of-the-way corner table, but Charlie still was sought out for pictures and autographs. Fans flock to Charlie on the course, too. At one event, an armada of 30 golf carts awaited him on the first tee.      

At another match, Harbeck said a couple of photographers tried to access the course but because Harbeck didn’t know them, he turned them away. At public-course host sites, paparazzi wrangling is trickier. “You can’t stop anyone from coming, and if Tiger’s there, it’s crazier,” Harbeck said. “Trust me, there are people in trees taking pictures. Microphones in his face.” After the first couple of weeks of the season, Harbeck learned to alert host sites in advance of the interest that Charlie stirs up, which he said led to some courses beefing up their security.

“But the kids handle it really well,” Harbeck said of the commotion. “He’s just one of the guys. He’s Charlie. That’s it.”

He’s just one of the guys. He’s Charlie. That’s it. Toby Harbeck

IF THERE IS ANYONE WHO can relate to the attention on Charlie, it is his father, who has been generating buzz at least since his appearance more than four decades ago as a putter-toting toddler on The Mike Douglas Show.

Tiger has a Ph.D. in hype and expectation management, but as Charlie was coming into his own, his old man was less versed on how to be a golf parent. As any parent of a young athlete — no matter his or her ability — can attest, there’s an important difference between being supportive and overbearing.    

“He was very funny about this,” Harbeck said of Tiger. “His first time out, he came up to me and said, ‘Coach, what can I do? What can I not do?’”

“I said, ‘You can talk to him but only talk to him between holes.’”

“How close can I get?” Tiger asked.  

“As close as you want,” the coach said. “I mean, I don’t want you in the fairway, but….”

And on it went.

Harbeck is accustomed to having golfing legends around his team. Remarkably, two of Jack Nicklaus’ sons, Gary and Michael, also played under Harbeck at the Benjamin School. So did Greg Norman’s son, Greg Jr., and Olin Browne’s boy, Olin Jr. Charlie isn’t even the only offspring of a major winner on Harbeck’s current team. Justin Leonard’s son, Luke, is also on the roster.

Harbeck said he has on occasion picked Tiger’s golfing brain, but he doesn’t inundate him with questions. Which isn’t to say Tiger hasn’t helped the squad. At the state championship, Charlie’s El Campeon yardage book was filled with notes and observations from his father, some of which Charlie’s teammates soaked up. Take the 17th hole, a double-dogleg par-5 that is unreachable by even the longest hitters.  

“We talk about that hole a whole lot — so did Tiger, about the layup,” Harbeck said. “I used to always encourage the kids to lay up at the bottom of the hill. Tiger thought, and it was in the notes, that it’s better to lay up at the top of the hill because there’s a tree that you’d have to go over at the bottom of the hill. Whereas if you’re at the top, you don’t have to go over that tree. It kind of caught my eye and I changed the philosophy of the guys this year saying, ‘Hey, let’s lay up at 150 rather than 100, because then we’d have to deal with that tree and divots and all that.’ That came out of that book.”   

Tiger shows his support in other ways, too.

At a match last season, two Benjamin School kids shot 66. When Harbeck informed Tiger of the scores, the 82-time PGA Tour winner with a fused ankle all but leapt from his car, hustled over to the players and hugged them. When the team won state, Harbeck got a squeeze of his own from Tiger by the 18th green. “He reached out to bear hug me,” Harbeck said. “I’m telling you, he took the breath out of my chest. That man is strong. Real strong.”

Father and son at the 2022 PNC Championship. getty images

CHARLIE, LIKE HIS FATHER, has a propensity — Harbeck calls it a “drive” — for making birdies; only one player on the Benjamin School team carded more red numbers than Charlie last season. But Harbeck said Charlie’s go-for-broke style hasn’t always paid dividends. “There’s certain pins you don’t want to go after, and he goes after everything,” the coach said. “When I can break him of that a little bit, he’s going to become a much better player. … One of the things I preach to him is hit it in the middle of the green, you’re going to have 15, 18 feet no matter where the pin is. After the round, if there’s certain shots that they’ve hit that I’ve seen that I didn’t like the idea of it, we discuss it.”

At 5-foot-6, Charlie is six inches shorter than some of his teammates but as long as any of them. “He can bomb it out there 300-plus in a heartbeat,” Harbeck said. “He’s got a different mode — sometimes it’s a nice easy swing, and then sometimes he puts it on ultra-mode and he can just fly it.”

Off the course, Harbeck said, Charlie is calm and reserved. Smart, too. Harbeck taught Charlie in seventh grade. “He’s the kind of kid that when you tell him something one time, you don’t have to tell him again,” Harbeck said. “The point’s been made. He knows.” College is still three-plus years away, but Harbeck said Charlie has already indicated that he’s not interested in following his father’s footsteps to Stanford and is more drawn to schools in the Southeast.  

Charlie, his coach said, is still learning to play less aggressively. courtesy toby hendrick

The biggest differentiator between Charlie and his peers might be that Charlie already has a fanbase. When Harbeck returned to school after the state championship last month, he found four letters for Charlie in his mailbox. “People wanting stuff signed and sent back to them,” Harbeck said. A few nights later, at the team’s end-of-season awards dinner, Harbeck, while addressing the players and their parents, couldn’t resist good-naturedly needling Charlie for his popularity. “I’m not in charge of your fan club anymore,” the coach joked as he theatrically flung the letters. “You need to find somebody else to do that.”

Harbeck added of Charlie’s continuing development and maturation, “Our biggest thing that we’ve tried to teach him is that we want Charlie to be Charlie. We don’t want Charlie to be Tiger.” That said, Harbeck confesses that sometimes he struggles to look at Charlie and not see Tiger, just as PNC viewers have since Tiger and Charlie began lighting up the NBC telecast together.

“The mannerisms are just unmistakable,” he said. “The way he walks, the way he stands, everything.”

Fans will see those similarities again this week when Tiger and Charlie return to Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, though another trait father and son share might be less obvious: the fire that burns within.   

“He wants to outhit Dad on every hole, he wants to hit it inside Dad on every green and he wants to make every putt,” Harbeck said of Charlie. “It’s a little competition with them. Charlie’s very competitive, even outside of golf. If you were fishing or playing checkers or whatever, he wants to win. He doesn’t want to finish second. We all know where that came from.”

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