ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiger Woods did his best again Friday to downplay expectations surrounding his return to golf, but even he can’t help himself once in a while.
So it was that he flashed a bit of anger at a tee shot he hit off the toe on the ninth hole during the pro-am for the PNC Championship. The ball flight was less than pleasing, and Woods snatched his tee out of the ground in disgust.
Only to have his 12-year-old son, Charlie, mock him: “Nice shot.”
Tiger fired that tee at Charlie’s back, everyone laughed, and the round at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club continued with Woods remarkably even being in this position just less than 10 months following a horrific car crash that severely damaged his right leg and foot.
“It was an awesome day,” said Woods, who admitted he was nervous about hitting shots with spectators watching for fear of hitting them. “It was just awesome to be back out here playing. To be out here with my son. We had an absolute blast.”
It was a year ago at this same tournament where Woods last played any competitive golf. He teamed with Charlie to tie for seventh in the event that has 20 teams, with one player required to be a major champion, paired with a family member.
Charlie stole the show a year ago and impressed with his game and the mannerisms that looked so much like those of his dad.
Only a few days later, Woods had a fifth back procedure, and his status for the 2021 season was in doubt when he was involved in the crash that left him hospitalized for three weeks before a long rehab.
But it’s back to being all about Tiger again, and the fact he was hitting shots in a public setting with TV cameras rolling so soon after a debilitating crash was, in many ways, surprising to him, too.
“Yes and no,” Woods said. “If you would have asked me after those three months in the bed, [if] I would be here, I would have given you a different answer. But there are no days off. We worked every day. Even days where I didn’t feel very good, we still worked on something. So every day, there was never a day off the entire time other than those three in months in bed.”
In many ways, it was like old times. Caddie Joe LaCava carried the bag, and his oldest son, Joe Jr., caddied for Charlie. Tiger’s girlfriend, Erica Herman, who normally skips the pro-am, was there to sometimes drive the golf cart and take in the scene, somewhat anxious about the entire experience.
Woods’ longtime friend, Rob McNamara, was there to watch all aspects of his swing and his game while also offering words of encouragement to Charlie.
The difference, of course, was the golf cart, which Woods is allowed to use in this 36-hole event that begins Saturday.
That won’t be allowed when he returns to the PGA Tour at whatever point that becomes possible. Woods, who turns 46 on Dec. 30, acknowledged again that he is a long way off. But might he petition for the use of a cart at some point? Due to the 2001 Supreme Court ruling via Casey Martin, he could conceivably apply under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“No. I wouldn’t, no,” he said. “Absolutely not. Not for a PGA Tour event, no. That’s just not who I am. That’s not how I’ve always been, and if I can’t play at that level, I can’t play at that level.”
It is clear that Woods is not near that level now. There were numerous good shots, especially with his short clubs. Woods was sharp around the greens, hit some nice wedge approaches, and even bombed a 320-yard drive on the 11th hole.
But most of his tee shots were in the 280-yard range, and after the 11th, he played sparingly, by design.
“From everything that’s gone on, I’m surprised he is here,” said Notah Begay, Woods’ longtime friend, former teammate at Sanford and Golf Channel analyst. “That he’s in a position to compete is remarkable. He’s moving well and looks good.
“There’s no endurance. So it’s almost like he’s on a pitch count. He’s only got so many full swings in him each day. And he knows that. It’s good for him to be in a place where he’s OK with it. That comes from a lot of maturity and coming to terms with the reality of an accident that could have been catastrophic. And being in a good place with it.”
Woods did show some signs of distress. At times, his walking was slow, and while he might not have done so with a limp, the right leg and foot clearly were bothering him. That’s why he didn’t hit as many shots, simply to save himself.
“I still have a long way to go in this rehab process. As I said, I don’t have the endurance to be out here to play at the Tour level,” he said. “This is different. You saw it out there. I can hit around here, drop a ball here, hit a few wedges.
“But to go out there and have 220 yards and know that you have to hit a 3- or 4-iron and miss the ball in the correct spot, and then hit certain shots and one stroke determines whether you win or lose, that’s a totally different mindset than what we have out here this week. I’m not there yet.”
Woods and Charlie play at 12:18 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be grouped with Justin Thomas and his dad, Mike.