Tiger Woods is still a thrill for PGA Tour players, too

rory mcilroy justin thomas tiger woods

Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods laugh during the middle of the first round Thursday.

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Max McGreevy was up on his tippy-toes Thursday evening, just trying to get a glance. In front of him were a cameraman and a bunch of golf writers huddling around the most important man in golf. You already know his name. 

McGreevy had teed off a half hour before Tiger Woods but he and his wife had paused their exit to watch Woods describe his own first round, a two-under 69 — four strokes better than McGreevy’s own two-over 73. In most sports a battered 47-year-old should have no business beating a spry, up-and-coming 27-year-old. But golf has always flattened the generations.

This was McGreevy’s first time playing in the same event as Woods, and it might end for him after Friday’s cut, so instead of waltzing quickly off the property, he listened intently, leaning in closer, delaying dinner. It was just one of the many signs that Woods is still a thrill for all his colleagues, even if they’re his competitors, too. 

You saw it in Justin Thomas’ face about 30 minutes earlier. As one-third of this tournament’s Super Group, Thomas was used to hearing fans light up for someone else all day. On 18, JT calmly curled in a birdie from 28 feet that sent a jolt into the amphitheater behind 18. But it would turn out to be nothing more than a foreshock. Seconds later, Woods trickled in a birdie of his own — his third in a row — pumped his first, and gave Thomas a little I-told-you-so side-eye.

All Thomas could do was grin and shake his head. Spectators chanted Woods’ name. Thomas moseyed over, placed his hands on Woods’ shoulders and whispered something in his ear. We’ll never know what he said, but we do know what the crowd seemed to be saying all day: thank you.

Woods was under no pressure to serve as anything more than a host this week, but he decided to game it. He wasn’t perfect, but gritted it out and tossed in a couple darts toward the end. His performance made things at least a little weird for McIlroy and Thomas, who were relegated to supporting duty for the first time in a while.

“This guy has literally been golf for the last 25 years,” McIlroy said with a smile. “I am very happy to take a back seat.”

He may not have been the man, but at least McIlroy was the low man. His Thursday 67 bested both Thomas and Woods. Rory may be too used to Tiger’s brilliance these days. After the round, he shook his head with a knowing smile.

“He did what he always does,” McIlroy said.

You saw it earlier this week when Aaron Rai, No. 134 in the world, arrived around dawn Wednesday morning just to walk with Woods’ pro-am group. With wild winds delaying Rai’s own practice round, he introduced himself to Woods and learned all about his garden and backyard short game area.

Pro-turned-broadcaster Colt Knost was the walking reporter with Woods group Thursday. It is his job to put moments into words. But when McIlroy-Woods-Thomas went birdie-birdie-birdie to close, he took to Twitter to explain that, in fact, words were not sufficient. All of this, just on a Thursday.

You saw it when Jon Rahm admitted he’d be tuning in for Woods’ round Thursday afternoon, just minutes after his own 65.

You saw it in Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay, who admitted on Wednesday afternoon that he loves caddying in Tiger’s group, especially this week. He’s looped in the same group as Woods dozens of times, but never at Riviera. This is the kind of course that prefers art over science, he said. Bones should know.

But you could see it most in a harmless conversation between Woods and Jason Day on Tuesday afternoon, which already feels like weeks ago. After a few minutes on the practice green, the two golfers split, but not before Day left Woods with the thought on the mind of everyone at Riviera this week.

“This Tour misses you, man.”

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.