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Tiger’s changing life — and priorities — were never more evident than at the PNC Championship

Justin Thomas and Tiger and Charlie Woods

In one of his best tournaments, Tiger finished seventh.

That came at the PNC Championship — the Father-Son, to use its street name — played just before Christmas at a no-rough resort course in Orlando, beside a Ritz-Carlton, the players off in foursomes. So, no: not a major. But some event.

The days were chilly, but Tiger radiated something like warmth. Within his group, over the course of two rounds, everybody was rooting for everybody, and the caddies were right there, too.

Through the needling, there was … love. (You know. Fellas. We speak in tongues: Aw, you hit that too good.) Tiger was playing with his son, Charlie, alongside Mike Thomas, a club pro and golf teacher, and his son, Justin. Caddying for Tiger and Charlie were the Joe LaCavas, père et fils. Mike’s caddie was his wife, Jani.

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“The Thomases and the Woodses are like family,” Woods said recently. “JT is like the brother I never had and Charlie is like the little brother that JT never had.”

In the end, Justin and Mike Thomas won, and Charlie and Tiger finished seventh. Elin Nordegren, Tiger’s former wife, was walking with Erica Herman, Tiger’s girlfriend. They stopped short of the 18th green and Elin ran her hand through Erica’s hair. Talk about human connection and the power of time.

Tiger, newly 46 and reinventing his life, is changing. In recent interviews, he has mentioned the pleasure of dinners out with the guys, a staple of Tour life going back to the 1950s, going back to the days of George Bayer and Bob Goalby. Tiger actually made a recent mention of George Bayer, mammoth football-player-turned-golfer. Woods may pine for eras long before his own, but he was never a Morton’s-at-seven guy. In his prime (1996 to 2013), you didn’t see Woods out at night with Notah Begay or Steve Williams or José María Olazábal.

He was never really, in a dying phrase, on tour. He helicoptered in and out. But in South Florida, when they’re all around, the Thomases and the Woodses are like family.

Tiger and Justin are genuinely close, despite the 17 years that separate them. Justin was Tiger’s handpicked playing partner at the 2019 Presidents Cup. They are both represented by the same company, Excel Sports, Mark Steinberg presiding. Justin’s new caddie is Jim “Bones” Mackay, a member of Tiger’s itty-bitty circle of trust. Mike Thomas is Charlie’s instructor. Tiger teaches Charlie how to play a course, but it’s Mike who handles swing technique.

That’s a relative phrase. Mike’s not a technocrat. He’ll say, “This golf swing is a circle. Swing on a circle.” Mike teaches Charlie pretty much the way Butch Harmon taught Tiger. Charlie, who is 13, swings the club beautifully. Tiger’s job is to curb the boy’s temper.

Tiger made that we-are-family comment in a videotaped interview with Golf Digest posted a few days after Thanksgiving. Over the first nine months after Woods’ life-altering car crash, Justin Thomas was the most regular player-visitor to the Woods home on Jupiter Island. During the Ryder Cup, Mike Thomas watched the American victory from a sofa in Tiger’s South Florida home, with Tiger texting Steve Stricker and Davis Love and Fred Couples throughout the telecast.

The Thomases and the Woodses are like family,” Tiger said recently. “JT is like the brother I never had and Charlie is like the little brother that JT never had.”

Justin Thomas, like Tiger, is an only child. Justin’s mother is a fitness-minded supermom. You can imagine Tiger looking at the Thomas family and seeing a different, maybe idealized, version of his own boyhood family. Earl and Tida Woods were famously devoted to their son, but the struggles between them were a not-so-secret secret. The Thomas threesome seems to move as one.

Justin is fiercely protective of Tiger’s privacy. At the Ryder Cup, post-victory, a reporter asked about a pep-talk text message from Tiger to team members. It was an innocent question, but Justin seemed to hear something invasive in it. “Tiger?” Thomas asked. “Tiger who? What are you talking about? What did he say?” His tone was not, at all, playful.

If you want to have any kind of meaningful relationship with Tiger, it’s on his terms and the starting point is complete fidelity.

Three people who are particularly close to him — Mark Steinberg, Joe LaCava and Rob McNamara, Tiger’s aide-de-camp — are on his payroll. They must know they walk on tightropes. Woods and “Stevie” Williams were like brothers for years, but now Tiger barely acknowledges his former caddie’s existence.

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By all appearances and reports, Tiger genuinely loves Joe. Joe was with Fred for years and Tiger saw that Joe was more than Fred’s caddie. A true friend is a person you can trust. Justin was at the Woods house when Tiger couldn’t get himself to the loo. But Steve Williams was behind the curtain too. So was Butch Harmon. Until they weren’t.

There are only four players who have won 14 times on Tour before turning 28: Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas, who joined the club last year at the Players. Tiger, as Steinberg sees it, is in the grooming business.

“Tiger deeply cares about the game,” Steinberg told me by text. “Deeply. And the relationships he has cultivated. He wants the game to be in good hands for generations to come.”

As a player, Tiger is stepping back. We’ll see him at next week’s Genesis Invitational, a tournament his foundation runs, but he’ll be there as a non-playing host. He hopes he can get his body, head and game together for a few events a year. You know which ones. The Masters. The Open, especially when it’s at the Old Course. Plus the PNC, alongside the Thomases, a December gift to themselves, and to us.

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