Charlie Woods playing harder setup at PNC Championship but still has an edge

charlie woods at the 2023 pnc championship

Charlie Woods at the PNC Championship on Friday.

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The PNC Championship is supposed to be a chill affair that puts a feel-good bow on the golfing year.

And it is.

But since Tiger and Charlie Woods have become a staple at Ritz-Carlton Golf Club over the past four years, driving untold more buzz and eyeballs to the two-day parent-child event, you can’t help but sense that the proceedings have taken on more significance. Tiger has jokingly called the PNC his “fifth major.” Lee Trevino says he looks forward to this week more than the Masters. When Vijay Singh and his son Qass won last year, Qass said, “This is what we wanted forever.”

“Sixteen years,” Vijay said.

So, yeah, the PNC means something to its participants.

Which means its PGA Tour Champions organizers strive to make the competition — i.e., the tee assignments — as equitable as possible.

That’s no small task when you have a field that includes not only professionals competing against amateurs and men against women but also octogenarians squaring off with entrants who aren’t even old to shave. This week, Trevino is back in the field. At 84, he is 72 years older than the youngest player on the tee sheet, Annika Sorenstam’s son, Will McGee. Between them are the likes of Matt Kuchar’s son Cameron (he’s 15); John Daly II (20), who plays college golf at Arkansas; LPGA star Nelly Korda (25); Qass Singh (33), who works in the insurance business; and on it goes to players of varying abilities in their 40s, 50s, 60s and, yes…one in his 80s.

The Tour assigns players to one of four tee distances contingent upon the players’ age and status; here’s how this year’s assignments were doled out:  

7,106 yards (gold): Pros 52 and under; family members 16-52

6,578 yards (white): Pros and family members 52-63; LPGA members and family members 14-15

6,036 yards (red): Pros 64-72; family members 12-13

5,499 yards (blue): Pros and family members 73 and over; juniors 11 and under

It’s not a perfect system — what system could be for such a diverse field? — but the committee does reserve the right to make adjustments as deemed necessary, though those tweaks are rare. As Joe Terry, the Tour’s chief referee, told last year, “Age is age, and it’s always constant, and if we stick by our tournament regulations, we’ll be fine.”

Still, it’s hard not to scan the tee sheet and feel like some players don’t have either a distinct tee-aided advantage or disadvantage. For example, from the playing-from-the-tips group, you have to feel for Justin Leonard, who’s driving distance average on the Champions tour is 272.8 yards. That’s nothing to sniff at, but when you compare him to the mashers in his group, such as Justin Thomas (308.5 yards) and Stewart Cink (305.5 yards), Leonard is starting in a 35-yard hole. Even a few players in the 6,500-yard group (white tees), including John Daly II, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen, are considerably longer than Leonard and, for that matter, David Duval, who also is playing from the way-backs.

What’s Charlie Woods’ golf game like? We asked his high school coach
By: Alan Bastable

Nelly Korda is playing from the whites. Should she be? Maybe, maybe not. A 6,500-yard setup is on the longer side on the LPGA but certainly not unheard of — the official yardage for the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach this year was 6,505 yards — but Korda’s 268.9-yard average driving distance still is 30 yards behind the longest hitters in her PNC bracket. Meanwhile, Bernhard Langer, who’s driving average (269.4) is longer than Korda’s, is playing from the red tees, which are more than 500 yards shorter than from where Korda is playing.   

Charlie Woods, Tiger’s son, is an interesting case study, because in four PNC starts he has played the event from three different tee lengths. As an 11-year-old in 2020, he played from the front tees; at 12 and 13, he moved back to the roughly 6,000-yard tees; and this year, as a 14-year-old high school freshman, he’s been bumped back again, to 6,578 yards.

A year ago some observers suggested Charlie, who was then hitting drives 270 or 280 yards, should play longer tees, to which Terry told “I’m not going to arbitrate that. Age is age. If I moved him [back] because he’s good, then why don’t I move some others because they’re not good?”

Now that Charlie has been moved back — some 500 yards — is he at an advantage or disadvantage?

Charlie’s high school coach, Toby Harbeck, told me Charlie’s drives with his “normal” swing speed are in the 275- to 280-yard range, but with his “hard” swing, he can easily crank one out there 300-plus yards.

Charlie also is accustomed to much longer setups than the one he’s playing this week. Harbeck said Charlie’s team, which won a state title in Florida earlier this year, typically plays tees in the 6,800-yard range so he expects Charlie’s drives at the PNC will continue to be a weapon for Team Woods. “He should do very well from that distance, depending on the weather,” Harbeck said.

Justin Thomas, who has played much golf with Charlie, agreed with the coach’s assessment.   

“I think playing on the high school team has been very beneficial for him,” Thomas said Friday. “I’m just glad he keeps moving back tee markers.”

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