ORLANDO, Fla. — Round 1 at the PNC Championship felt like a day marked by little victories. Just ask Justin Thomas:
“Crazy cool to be out on the course with Tiger, Charlie and my dad,” he said. “I’m definitely calling it a success that both my dad and Tiger made it 18 holes.”
There has been understandably less scrutiny on Mike Thomas’ back than Tiger Woods’ leg, but Team Thomas is defending its title this week, and its older member was in unmistakable pain for much of Saturday’s round. Getting through the round — at 12 under, no less, good for a share of second place — was a victory.
“He’s fine,” Justin sighed, then caught himself. “I mean, I’ll never know how he is because he won’t — he says fine to everything.”
Tiger Woods admitted a small victory of his own because he hit three shots exactly how he intended. “One was on 3, the par-5,” he said. “It was a 220-yard 4-iron which I hit probably eight feet behind the hole. I hit a good one at 14, the [approach at the] par-5, and I smoked a 7-iron at 17.”
Solid contact brings joy; that’s the comeback stage in which Woods currently resides. Embracing golf’s simple pleasures. (He added an additional win by outdriving Thomas at No. 11, too.)
Two European dads claimed victories of their own.
Henrik Stenson completed his first competitive round alongside his son Karl, who is this week’s youngest (and perhaps funniest) participant.
“We watched the event last year and Tiger and Charlie played, and I think that sparked some interest and he’s been keen on his golf the last couple of years,” Stenson said. “I think I’ve never been more proud of him in my life, I’d say. He did exceptionally well given it’s our first time out there, lots of people. He put pressure on himself.”
“[I hit it] not too bad, but I wasn’t too happy with the shots,” Karl said.
The other winning Euro dad was Ian Poulter, who wasn’t in the field but lives just 20 minutes away in Lake Nona. He and his son Joshua — Karl’s semi-regular playing partner — came over to see the scene and to chat up the youngest member of Team Woods, who Poulter said his son looks up to “just like we look up to Tiger Woods.” The Charlie Effect has begun.
But the best moment I witnessed all day came behind the 18th green, where Nelly Korda waited post-round for Woods to finish up. There’s a good chance you’ve already seen it; the video took over the golf internet Saturday night.
What’s the backstory? Korda has admired Woods from afar but never actually met him. I always subconsciously assume all top pros, even those from different tours, all know each other. In reality, unless they share agents or sponsors or a hometown, how would they? But Nelly had been eager to connect with her golfing hero all week; she was practically giddy at the idea before he’d even arrived on property.
“Playing right in front of Tiger Woods is pretty cool, I’m not going to lie,” she said on Thursday. “I don’t really watch a lot of golf, but when Tiger is in contention, I’m always glued to the TV.”
Team Korda played one group ahead of Team Woods on Saturday, and so the Kordas hung around after, Nelly and her pro tennis player father Petr and her pro tennis player brother Seb, all waiting for pro golfer Tiger Woods. A cameraman caught the moment as Nelly made her approach.
“Hi, Tiger,” Korda said sheepishly as Woods snagged his watch from his bag and prepared to speak to the media. “I was wondering if I could take a photo with you.”
“Nelly!” Woods replied, excited. “Yes. You got it. Done deal.”
“I didn’t want to bother you right now, but I really wanted a photo,” Korda added with a laugh.
The moment was particularly cool because of Korda’s own star power. She’s had a massive 2021, winning a major, an Olympic gold and ascending to World No. 1. There’s nothing relatable about the way she hits a golf ball, nor the way she slams the door on the competition when she’s in contention. But the way she approached Tiger Woods, excited and a little nervous? Plenty of golf fans know that feeling.
“Ah, so cool!” Nelly exclaimed to the camera as she walked away, gleeful. “Dream come true.”
The video spread like crazy. There was something aspirational about the moment and about Nelly’s genuine excitement. It’s fun, watching people get excited. And in this case, the admiration goes both ways; Woods expressed his appreciation for Korda’s game just moments later.
“Just her golf swing, how fluid it is and her movement, the center strikes, the way she hits it and the way she controls it. Her temperament on the golf course, how hard she fights and she fights hard on every shot. You can’t say that about some players. Some players will dog it here and there. Nelly is not like that,” he said.
After media obligations, the Woodses, Kordas and Thomases congregated again on the driving range, where Charlie wanted to get a few extra reps in as the sun set. It was the sort of summit that could only happen at an event like this.
My day’s personal wins were pretty simple: I got to see all these things happen. I saw Joshua Poulter admiring Charlie Woods’ golf swing on the range, and I saw Karl Stenson gearing up for his big debut, and I saw Woods delighted those few times the ball flew further than he expected. I saw Justin and Charlie trading barbs. And I saw Nelly staking out Tiger. I hope this doesn’t sound like a brag. Instead I was struck by the depth to the event. Once you look past the matching outfits and Santa suits and made-up competition, these are all real people and real families, and when the families of the world’s greatest golfers interact, some magical moments tend to follow.
Sunday will deliver one big win. And hopefully a bunch more little ones, too. And here, to play you out, is Karl Stenson:
Read on for more!
Day 3: Tiger Woods runs into an old friend.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Let’s start today’s diary entry with a PSA: Not all pro-am participants are particularly good golfers.
This often puts the ability of their professional competitors in stark relief. On Friday at the PNC Pro-Am, as all the photographers in north-central Florida aimed their lenses at Tiger and Charlie Woods, the man directly to their right hit for a Bad Range Session triple crown: He chunked one. He thinned the next. Flustered, he rushed his third, set up his next ball too close to the rope on the ground and then caught it with his followthrough, sending a surprise up and down the range.
That’s the fun stuff. It’s good to get reminded just how good these guys are by remembering what the golfing public would look like in the same situation. But at certain well-attended pro-ams, the spray radius of erratic ams can suddenly turn spectators in all directions into potential targets. When Tiger Woods is involved, the nerves ratchet up. The number of spectators does, too.
On the first tee Friday, after Woods had hit his much-anticipated opening drive, his three playing partners followed, one after the other. The first two got off without incident, but the third player stepped up, swung quick and hit a frozen rope that shot out fast, low and left. Nobody had time to react. This was a laser to the shortstop. The ball barely cleared a cameraman, then a husband and wife in the front row, then the dozens of fans beyond them. One man would later claim it clipped his hat. That’s tough to verify; they don’t use the 8k cameras on amateur tee shots. Either way, the threat left the same moment it arrived, careening harmlessly down the left roughline. No fans down, no foul.
Later in the round, I asked Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava if he had ever seen a Pro-Am swing go badly awry. He hadn’t really, he said, though he immediately knew the shot I was referencing.
“I thought we were pretty darn close at No. 1 today,” he said.
That shot, LaCava said, reminded him of a Tom Kite worm-burner at the PGA Championship in 1992. Kite’s missive went low and left and clipped a spectator. Kite was grouped with Fred Couples that day. LaCava was Couples’ caddie. I looked up the clip and he was exactly right; Kite’s ball flight mimicked Friday’s near-miss, just a few degrees off in either direction.
The PSA, then: Just because you are following Tiger Woods does not guarantee that every player in his group will play to his ability. Pick your spots!
All’s well that ends well, and that single shot was an especially trivial part of an important Friday at the PNC Championship. It was an important day because Tiger Woods played golf in public for the first time since this same event last year, and by extension, for the first time since his car crash in February. The day began with a significant number of media members and spectators lined up at the edge of the parking lot, awaiting the arrival of Team Woods. But the chaos of that amateur’s shot was the perfect counterbalance to the day’s swollen importance.
I wrote about the questions we had for Woods entering Friday and I tried to answer them here, but I’ll try to summarize the day’s Tiger Thesis: He is playing golf at an extremely high level for someone whose body endured that trauma. He’s only a club or so short of where he was pre-crash, he’s still building back speed and his hands and feel are enough to keep up on Tour. But he’s not close to a return to the big show. Not yet. Not until he can walk 18 holes, no cart. Not until he can walk 90 holes, really, over the course of a week. He won’t be there for a while.
My day at the Ritz-Carlton wrapped with a stop at the practice green. Mark O’Meara was there with his partner-and-son Shaun, rolling putts as the shadows grew long. I stopped to chat. They humored me. Mark shared an epic story about Hale Irwin (more on that some other time) but the conversation steered quickly to the man of the hour. Who better to add perspective on this stage of his career than two people who saw its early stages? When he first moved to Orlando in the late ’90s, Woods became Mark’s neighbor and close friend. He became Shaun’s, too.
“When he first moved to Isleworth he was 19 and it was kind of just him,” Shaun remembered. He’s 32 now, some 13 years younger than Woods. “He lived four or five doors down from us but my mom would do his laundry, he’d come over for breakfast, for dinner, we’d shoot hoops, he’d help me with my homework — he’s smart, man — and he was kinda my big brother.”
“It was classic,” Mark chimed in. “Those were good times.”
“He didn’t hold off on me,” Shaun continued. As a promising junior, he remembered one day where he played nine at Isleworth neck-and-neck with Woods. “We were just going to play the front nine and I birdied 9 to either tie him or clip him by one. As soon as I made that putt he’s like, ‘Okay, we’re going to the back nine.’
“I think he shot 29 on the back nine.”
The bonds ran deep. But they wouldn’t stay neighbors forever, nor peers — Woods’ PGA Tour career peaked as O’Meara’s wound down. He moved. He started a family. They’d connect occasionally, like for a practice round at the Masters, but they’d go long stretches without speaking, too.
O’Meara reached out to Woods after the crash, offering thoughts and support. The two exchanged messages a couple times over the course of the summer, but they hadn’t seen each other until Friday morning, when O’Meara said Woods snuck up on him — and his emotions did, too.
“We were having breakfast this morning and Shaun went up to get his omelette,” Mark said. “I hadn’t seen Tiger. I was just sitting there and I looked to the left — and it’s T. He’s like, ‘Don’t get up, M.O., don’t get up.’ I get up, of course, and I gave him a big bear hug. I hung on for a sec and I said, ‘Y’know, bud, it’s so good to see you. I love you.’
“He goes, ‘I love you too M.O., you know that.”
“I said, ‘Y’know, T, you’re unbelievable. I think it’s just so cool that you’re here with Charlie, because I know how cool it’s been for me to play this event with Shaun. And because I remember when Sam and Charlie were born. And we don’t get to see each other much, but I am a huge Tiger Woods fan. Huge. I know a lot of people are. But I think it’s very special to see a guy who’s been through so much — physically, mentally — his life has always been under the gun but he’s always delivered and his life has been so special.”
It was a fitting way to end the day. Because of just how many people are invested in Woods’ comeback — the sheer volume of it all — it’s easy to lose track of those for whom his appearance means something personal. Then again, maybe it means something personal to just about everybody. To O’Meara, one of Woods’ longest-tenured golfing friends. To Justin Thomas, and to Nelly Korda, each in attendance this week, representing an entire younger generation of Tiger-inspired professional golf stars. And to everyone for whom Woods’ comebacks has served as inspiration in their own lives.
“I would never count Tiger Woods out. I just wouldn’t,” O’Meara said. “Listen, if he can walk again, he’ll play again. But to even be here playing? After what transpired in February? It’s a miracle, in my opinion.”
Day 2: First Impressions
ORLANDO, Fla. — Whenever I’m at a golf tournament in person I’m reminded of the ways in which golfers are different from their public reputations. These are real people, after all, not internet caricatures.
But sometimes the internet caricatures have some truth to them. Sometimes they’re self-reinforcing, too. And as John Daly drove to the par-4 13th tee at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club on Thursday, I was curious which impression I’d get.
I didn’t have to wait long; I could hear Daly before I saw him. Country music came blaring from a speaker attached to the driver’s side of his cart: “Drunk Me,” by Mitchell Tenpenny. Daly screeched to a stop and chuckled as a fan came up to him with a flag, asking for his signature.
“I can put Tiger Woods’ name on there if you want, tell people you got that one, too,” he said, wielding the fat-tipped Sharpie.
Daly stepped out of his cart and grabbed driver. He wore a bright-green shirt, untucked tails hanging over his fluorescent floral yellow shorts. He stuck his tee in the ground, waggled the driver and sent it over the dogleg, over the bunker guarding the green, over the green itself. The ball settled in the rough beyond, at least a 330-yard tee shot.
In other words, Daly is, at first glance, exactly what you’d expect. He’s the John Daly you came to see, but arguably even more Daly than that. John Daliest. Bright. Friendly. Country. Big-bombing. He still has those soft hands, too, which he showed off with a saucy flop shot from behind the green that died just a couple feet from the hole.
Then came Little John, who was playing in the foursome behind. From beside the green all we could hear was the ping of the driver and all we could see was the marshal indicating that yes, the ball was headed at the green. It landed in the greenside bunker but skipped out at just the right speed, rolled towards the hole, took a peek over the edge and settled some three feet away.
Daly II drove up to the green and grinned when he saw his ball. He hopped out of the cart, his father’s goofy 18-year-old son. “That wasn’t bad, huh?” he told a spotter. “This is a pretty long par-3 though!”
So it went on Day 1 at the PNC Championship. What do you do when you’re at a Tiger Woods event but Tiger Woods himself hasn’t yet arrived? You stroll the grounds. You see the sights. You soak up the sun. You listen for the sounds that make this championship what it is, like Lee Trevino, bantering with his pro-am foursome.
“You guys must own your own business because I can tell — you’re playing a lot of golf!”
“They’ve got my tees up so far I got a nosebleed just walking up to ’em!”
“You know how everybody looks forward to the Masters? We like this one better now.”
I had a few duties scheduling out my day. At noon I did a virtual video hit with Jessica Marksbury as part of our InsideGOLF preview show. At 2 p.m. I joined the media scrum speaking to Justin Thomas and his father Mike. At 3 p.m. Nelly Korda came by with her father Petr. In between I wrote and wandered and watched.
In terms of Tiger Watch, we learned by far the most from Mike Thomas, who played with both Charlie and Tiger last week and went out of his way to praise Woods’ game. The speed, the contact, the progress. He was flushing it.
“It’s crazy how good he’s hitting it and far he’s hitting for what he’s been through,” Mike said. A not-insignificant statement, coming from him. We’ll see if Woods proves him prophetic.
Justin shared a story of Woods giving him a tough-love lesson. Nelly, too, brought up Woods unprompted. The coolest thing about playing this week? Spending time with her dad, she said, but her eyes lit up at the next reason: “Playing right in front of Tiger Woods is pretty cool, too, I’m not going to lie.”
I wrote a couple short articles summarizing the Thomas press conferences (here and here). Then, liberated from my laptop, I stepped back into the Orlando afternoon sun. There were the grinders, the tinkerers, working into the evening. Padraig Harrington, working on the path of his putter, discussing theory with his caddie. Tom Watson, dialing in his Callaway gear, testing on the edge of the range. Vijay Singh, hitting ball after ball, his swing as long and powerful as ever, his patience, too. Someone once asked Singh what he was working on in his swing. “Trying to find the bottom,” he said. Nice.
Friday the range will take center stage. Team Woods will be there in advance of their 9 a.m. pro-am tee time. They’ll be hitting balls in public for the first time since this very same event last year. It will feel like a big deal in person. I think it might feel like a bigger deal on TV.
I’ll let you know.
Day 1: Golf from the sky
ORLANDO, Fla. — On a list of life’s simple pleasures, there aren’t many I rank higher than the specific feeling of peering out the window of an airplane, scanning for golf courses.
A mediocre course gains immediate credibility with the benefit of an overhead view. A fancy country club is reduced to its basics; no matter the initiation fee, from above it’s still grass and bunkers and cart paths, a quadrangle of green acreage. Spotting a course that you know well is best of all; there’s familiarity but mystique, too. You suddenly understand it differently when you see the holes laid out, maze-like, from an entirely different dimension. Perspective.
I boarded my plane in Seattle just before 8 a.m. It was 38 degrees and grey, though the rain held off for our departure. The sun rises reluctantly this time of year in this part of the country — 7:52 this morning, my weather app admitted sheepishly — so I peered out the window for signs of first light. There wasn’t much sun to speak of, but as we took off I spotted one golf course, then another, then a comfortable sight: Rainier Golf Club, where my friend Pat plays, a short, tight devilish test with massive pines and slopey greens.
From 14A, I couldn’t feel the chill of the December dawn. I couldn’t see just how narrow that first fairway looks from the tee. It looked simple from here. Full of possibility. The illusion of golf. It made me want to grab a club.
By the time we began our descent into Orlando, the sun was setting into a cloudy horizon. The curse of west-to-east travel, I guess. Where does the day go?
Orlando does not inspire from the sky. If there’s Disney magic in this town, it gets lost in translation from one or three or five thousand feet up. Instead you put away your large electronic devices, return your seat to its upright position, turn to the window and are struck with the distinct impression that Orlando must be the world’s leader in man-made lakes. Planned developments wound through waterways out my window, each house occupying the same footprint as its neighbor. If Orlando was a golf course, there would be water hazards everywhere. Penalty areas, I guess we’re calling those now. A less vivid description.
Why this diary? Because I’ve come from Seattle to Orlando to watch a family golf competition. A terrific family golf competition, to be clear. But at the Masters, the competition rules all. The path to victory is the story. At the PNC Championship, victory is an afterthought, so an analysis of Team Singh’s scramble strategy might not satisfy your expectations.
Perhaps the biggest question of why I’m here is, in fact, this one: why am I here? What am I hoping to see? What do I actually expect to see?
I mulled it over as I waited for my rental car. Nine quick questions wandered across my mind, questions to which I’d like answers.
First, three Tiger Woods questions with concrete answers:
How’s his swing speed?
How’s his gait?
How’s his short game?
Next, three Tiger Woods questions without concrete answers:
How is he feeling?
What is he thinking?
Then three more, non-Woods division:
What does a Team Thomas title defense look like?
Will Nelly Korda and her dad get in the mix?
Who’s having the most actual fun?
Then there’s the 10th question, perhaps the most intriguing but also the most fraught: What’s it’s like to be around Tiger and Charlie? Tiger Woods the father-slash-golfer is the show this week, after all. Still, that doesn’t mean we need to get all weird about it. No need to judge his parenting skills based on his reaction to missed putts nor declare 12-year-old Charlie heir to his father’s professional golf throne. Let’s just play it a tiny bit cool, eh? (Narrator: As he would soon find out, nobody was going to “play it cool.”)
I got a silver Toyota Corolla, a few years old, the kind where you still have to put the key in the ignition. I appreciate the practicality of rental cars. They’re clean and most have a reasonable amount of trunk space and they’re very effective at A to B transportation.
My trek to the hotel was complicated when I was reminded of Orlando’s most impressive characteristic: it’s the largest city in the world with exactly zero cell service. All good; I detoured through a Chik-fil-a, enjoyed a chicken sandwich in the parking lot and eventually turned, victorious, into the correct lodging.
My transformation to Florida Man had begun.