When golf turned its collective telescope in the direction of the PNC Championship last week, I, like many of you, felt some trepidation. The prospect of the sports world focusing its attention on 11-year-old was more than a little unsettling. It didn’t quite feel fair to have Charlie Woods serve as main attraction for a professional golf tournament.
Charlie was the draw, to be sure. Tiger Woods and his son took over social media, with several PGA Tour videos racking up tens of millions of views. Viewers clamored for more live television coverage, and even on a football-filled weekend, a relatively unknown two-man scramble brought plenty of eyeballs to the golf world. Was it all too much?
But now, with the benefit of a couple days’ distance, I’m left with a distinctly different impression than I expected: that the entire event was a huge success. Of all the imperfect ways to introduce Charlie Woods to the world, this one was likely the most perfect.
Why the about-face? In short, because the whole thing felt fun, positive, inspiring and ultimately harmless. Motivations were pure: Charlie, not Tiger, was the one pushing them to compete, and so they decided to compete. So said Tiger, and we should believe him, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the 15-time major champ it’s that he has no desire to A. Play extra tournaments, or B. Spend extra time in the spotlight. Charlie likes playing competitive golf, which is why they ended up at the PNC. Maybe it was that simple.
The PNC was also about as controlled an environment as you’ll get in professional golf. The pandemic meant no spectators at the Ritz-Carlton. The team scramble meant Dad was always close by. The custom tee boxes meant the course would be playable. The format meant no pressure. (Relatively speaking, of course — most amateurs would be terrified under the pressure of the PNC, but Charlie didn’t seem to be.) Tiger handled the interviews and the media. There were plenty of cameras, beaming the action to hundreds of thousands eagerly tuning in from home, but there was no strange in-person gawking, which must have put both father, son and team at ease.
As a result, Charlie was allowed to perform in his element. He’s an 11-year-old who likes to play golf with his father and likes to beat up on Justin Thomas, and at the PNC, he got the chance to try both. Once play began, Tiger said it felt like the two of them at their home course in Jupiter.
“It was just like being at Medalist,” he said. “Each shot is the same. Get into your own little world and hit the shot that you see, and then just execute.” He repeated that one powerful phrase for emphasis. “Our little world.”
Rewind some dozen years, to early 2009, when the public was first introduced to Sam and Charlie. To circumvent any tabloid photo-hunters of golf’s First Family, Woods and then-wife, Elin Nordegren, released a series of professional photos of their family, dog included, controlling the manner in which they would be presented to the world.
When Woods started dating Lindsey Vonn in 2013, he followed the same playbook, releasing a series of professional photos to social media, with an explanation: “It’s very simple. We’re very happy where we’re at, but also we wanted to limit the stalkarazzi and all those sleazy websites that are out there following us,” he said. “I’ve had situations where it’s been very dangerous for my kids and the extent they’ll go to. We basically devalued the first photos.”
Funneling this much attention in the direction of any kid is a big deal, but in this case the attention was overwhelmingly positive.
If you think about the PNC through the same lens, it all makes a little bit more sense. Charlie was on national television for several hours over the weekend in his natural habitat: the golf course. The public satisfied its curiosity. As a result, it’s less likely that onlookers at local Florida junior tournaments will try and snap phone videos for widespread internet consumption. It devalues what Woods calls the “stalkerazzi.” It humanizes both father and son. It’s a healthy way to control the message.
Funneling this much attention in the direction of any kid is a big deal, but in this case the attention was overwhelmingly positive. The reaction to Team Woods was mostly some variation of, “This is awesome!” Yes, if you were looking for overreaction on Twitter, you could find people asking how many majors Charlie will win. (Looking for overreaction on Twitter is like looking for grass on a golf course.) But far more viewers, being reasonable people, enjoyed the event for what it was: A look at Tiger being a devoted father to his talented, golf-loving son.
Forget troubling: It was inspiring! For every dimwit speculating on Charlie’s future career there was another sharing a story of their kids inspired by watching Charlie play. The Little League World Series Effect, but for golf. That effect wasn’t limited to fellow juniors: I hit the course Saturday afternoon, spurred to action by a series of extremely talented fathers and sons, an 11-year-old chief among them.
Charlie’s public introduction was never going to be simple. Every celebrity child faces challenges the rest of us can’t fully understand, and the Woods family dynamic is trickier than most. But on Sunday, we watched eagerly as Tiger played golf with his son. His caddie, Joe LaCava, carried his bag. Joe’s son, Joe LaCava Jr., carried Charlie’s. The rest of Team Woods — Tiger’s daughter Sam, his girlfriend Erica, his right-hand man Rob McNamara and his ex-wife Elin Nordegren — watched together outside the ropes. By all accounts, it’s a supportive crew.
According to several sources, Tiger — who lives a life blissfully absent social media — wasn’t expecting his team’s PNC appearance to garner nearly this much attention. If he had, he may have been more reluctant to play. Instead they competed hard, matching outfits, swings and focused stares, making memories in real time.
Their little world. This time, for the rest of the world to see.