Tiger Woods’ tone-deaf prank puts damper on otherwise thrilling day

tiger woods and justin thomas at genesis invitational

Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas at the Genesis Invitational on Thursday.

getty images

Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas have a long history of needling one another. It’s what golf pals do. Top a wedge shot or yank a three-footer, and you’re sure to hear it from your foursome. When Woods turned 47 in December, Thomas marked the occasion with an Instagram post that read, in part, “Happy birthday old man.”

Even Tiger’s son, Charlie, has gotten in on the fun. A couple of years ago at the PNC Championship, Charlie — who was playing alongside his father in the team event — left a note for Thomas and his father, Mike, who were playing in the group behind the Woods. In the scramble format, Mike had dumped his tee shot in a fairway bunker. When Justin arrived at the ball, next to it he found Charlie’s handwritten two-word zinger: “Draw hole.”

Tiger Woods at the Genesis Invitational.
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On Thursday, Tiger and JT were back at it, in the first round of the Genesis Invitational, where Woods looked remarkably sharp given it was his first full-field Tour start since the Open Championship in July. Playing in a glittering group with Thomas and Rory McIlroy, Woods’ ball speed was so zippy that on occasions he outdrove his long-hitting partners.        

“It was nice that I had this unbelievable pairing, two great guys, two great friends,” Woods said after posting a two-under 69. “It was a great round. The ebb and flow of needling each other, encouraging each other and telling stories. Because I hadn’t been out here so I’ve missed some of the things that have transpired on Tour, which is kind of fun.”

Some of that razzing came on the 9th hole, where Woods had blistered a 323-yard drive past both of his partners. As he walked off the tee, Woods cozied up to Thomas and covertly slipped a tampon into Thomas’s right hand — just not covertly enough, because the moment was captured by Cliff Hawkins, a senior field photo editor for Getty Images. One of those photos soon made its way to Twitter — that tweet, from golf-betting expert Rick Gehman, now has more than 10 million views — and by Friday morning Woods’ off-color prank was making international headlines.  

tiger woods and justin thomas at genesis invitational
Woods executing his prank at the Genesis Invitational on Thursday. Getty Images

Many commenters on social media had no problem with what had transpired — LOL, just guys being guys, right? — while others found it unfunny, sexist and offensive. But given Woods’ place in the golf world, it’s hard not to look at the pre-meditated stunt as a head-scratcher. What was he implying? That JT drives it like a girl? That would have been a tone-deaf message in 1923, let alone in 2023. When asked for an explanation of the prank, Woods’ manager, Mark Steinberg, did not immediately respond to an email from GOLF.com. Presumably Woods will be asked about it after his second round Friday at the Genesis. He also might not.

You might be saying to yourself, Hey, wait a minute, Woods didn’t intend for this episode to be broadcast all over the globe. It was a playful moment between friends. But here’s the thing: Woods knows every move he makes between the ropes — and often outside them, too — is under police-state-grade surveillance. He should have known better. Again, puzzling.

When Woods arrived on the 9th tee, he was one under for the round and fresh off a birdie at the 8th. He was enjoying himself, smiling and loose. His partners were, too. When Woods handed Thomas the tampon, Thomas immediately dropped it to the ground. Woods slung his arm around Thomas’ shoulder and bent over in laughter as the two walked down the fairway.

With the three major winners playing well together (McIlroy signed for a 67, Thomas for a 68), it was one of those rounds that you didn’t want to end. The mood grew even more festive on the back nine, which Woods closed out with a trio of birdies (2-4-3 on his card), moving from one over to two under in three holes.    

Thomas and McIlroy also made 3s on 18 but Woods’ birdie — a twister from 7 feet — drew the loudest roar from the mass of fans on the hillside that backs the green. Woods tossed his putter on his bag, glanced over at Thomas and shot him a cheeky grin, to which Thomas could only shake his head.

“I think it’s the group,” Woods said afterward of his reaction on 18. “JT hoops one in there and Rory’s been beating us all day. He’s nervous as can be because he didn’t want to be the one to miss on 18. I didn’t want to be the idiot host to miss it right in front of everybody after I just went birdie-birdie. These are all things that we all say amongst each other but obviously people don’t hear it, but caddies hear it, we all hear it.”

It’s like a secret fraternity out there. Until it’s not.

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.

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