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Tiger Woods in for One of Golf’s Biggest Events

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Tiger Woods in at PNC Championship

With all due respect to the gentlefolk at Global Home, the PGA Tour’s gleaming new HQ off A1A in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., here’s a top-9 list* with street cred, a ranking of golf’s biggest events, men’s division:

  1. The Masters.
  2. The Ryder Cup.
  3. The British Open.
  4. The U.S. Open.
  5. The PNC Championship (aka, The Parents & Kids & Assorted Others Invitational).
  6. The PGA Championship.
  7. The Players Championship.
  8. The Presidents Cup.
  9. The Hero World Challenge.

Now, in fairness, this casually assembled list is a fluid one, with the PNC Championship getting a quick boost from Wednesday’s news, that Tiger Woods and his son Charlie are in the field of this year’s event, being held next week.

Tiger Woods could be a case study for the Harvard Business School, a flesh-and-blood example of the basic laws of supply and demand. There has never been very much supply of him — maybe 18 events a year in the best of times. And since 2014? Barely half that, on average. It does not matter how he plays, or what kind of shape he’s in: If Tiger is in the flesh, making the scene, your event gets a booster rocket. Woods played Hilton Head only once, in 1999. That was something. A T-18 finish and he never came back.

You should have seen Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, in 2019, in a cold, damp press tent at Riviera, sitting beside Woods at the Tour’s venerable Los Angeles stop, the L.A. Open, now known as the Genesis Invitational. This was on the day when Monahan announced that Woods would become, in effect, the tournament host. You could almost see the adrenaline coursing through the commissioner’s neck veins. He had a partnership with one of the greatest athletes ever, any sport, right up there with Secretariat and Lionel Messi and Joe Louis.

Woods once arranged for his soccer-loving kids to meet Messi. Afterward, Tiger said to his daughter, Sam, “Isn’t it neat to be a living legend?”

“Yes,” Sam said. “We live with one.”

And it’s true. Say whatever you want and whatever you will about Tiger Woods, he’s a living legend. He’ll be a legend forever. 

Monahan knew then that the Genesis event now had a cemented place in the firmament, like those eternal star-dipped handprints and footprints on the sidewalks of Hollywood. And that he had done things in his life that put him at the same table with Tiger Woods.

The committee will now take five minutes to consider whether the Genesis Invitational should be in the top-9. Weirdly, it’s one of the few events on Tour that Tiger has played repeatedly and not won. The only other is the Honda Classic, played in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He grew up in Southern California. He lives in South Florida. Coincidence?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

(Liz Rosenberg, Coffee Talk, borrowed.)

Tiger-Tiger-Tiger. We shall not look upon his like again.

(Hamlet, Hamlet, bastardized.) 

When you think about it, three of these nine ranked tournaments — the PNC Championship, the Presidents Cup and the Hero World Challenge — are, as we say in the trade, Tiger-dependent. When Tiger Woods plays in these events, or even shows up after a lengthy absence, their places are secure on the list. And when he does not?

Eh-schmeh-meh.

The 2017 Hero World Championship was much-watch golf because Woods was playing in an event for the first time since his Memorial Day 2017 roadside arrest.

The 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne was must-watch golf because Woods was the U.S. playing captain, pairing himself with his close, personal friend Justin Thomas.

And the 2021 PNC Championship — a “hit and giggle” in Woods’ parlance — will be must-watch TV because Woods is playing with his 12-year-old son. Charlie is his given name. He doesn’t look like a Charles. Charlie Brown doesn’t, either. Neither did Charles M. Schulz, Charlie Brown’s de facto father. Schulz was a regular at Bing Crosby’s Pebble Beach pro-am.

Charlie Brown once asked: “Is there life somewhere else in the universe? That’s the big question.”

Snoopy: “No, the big question is, Does the rake go inside the bunker or outside the bunker?”

The PNC Championship, which has a two-day pro-am, will mark the first time Woods has played in any sort of tournament since last year’s PNC Championship, held at a resort course in Orlando in the shadows of a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Which means, of course, that this year’s PNC Championship will also be the first event Woods has played since his frightening, life-changing single-vehicle car crash in Los Angeles on Feb. 23.

In announcing his decision to play, Woods said via Twitter, “Though it’s been a long and challenging year, I am very excited to close it out by competing in the PNC Championship with my son Charlie. I’m playing as a Dad and couldn’t be more excited and proud.”

If last year’s form holds (and it likely will; Tiger is a creature of habit and he surely dictated various terms of his participation), Woods and his son will play alongside Mike and Justin Thomas in the pro-am rounds and in the first round of the 36-hole event, to be played on Saturday, Dec. 18.

The event, by the way, is owned jointly by IMG and NBC Sports. Its czar is Alastair Johnston, a Scotsman, a golf-history buff, an IMG lifer and Arnold Palmer’s longtime business manager. Johnston, who lived for some years near Woods in the Isleworth development, outside Orlando, oversaw the recruitment of Woods to IMG in the mid-1990s.

Soon after Charlie’s birth, Johnston began a running joke with Woods, a countdown to when Charlie would be old enough to participate in the event. Arnold Palmer was one of the developers behind Isleworth and the Arnold Palmer Invitational has been on NBC for decades. Also, Arnold pretty much put the PNC, first played in 1995, on the golfing off-season calendar. He played for some years with Sam Saunders, his grandson.

Yes, this is another entry in a composition book hand-labeled with these words: The Cloistered World of Professional Golf.

The invisible subhead: This is how we do it, baby.

For the second and final round, on Sunday, the 20 PNC teams will be paired by score. Last year, Mike Thomas, a club pro and teacher, and Justin Thomas, the reigning Players champion, won the event. Tiger and Charlie finished seventh, one spot ahead of John Daly and his sweet-swinging son, Little John, no longer little. JD2 plays golf at Arkansas. He’s laid off at the top, like they all are these days, and flat-out kills it. JD his own self is surely still mourning the death earlier this year of Dusty Hill of ZZ Top. Last year, at the PNC, JD was sporting a white beard that Hill would have recognized for its spectacular outlaw spirit.

Part of Tiger’s attraction to Justin Thomas is that he’s a pro’s pro, literally and otherwise. Not an outlaw. Thomas is an only child, as is Tiger. Tiger always liked John Daly but they didn’t go out for dinner, and when Daly tried to reach out to Woods in Tiger’s time of need, the calls went unanswered. JD called TW BJ, for Black Jesus. Daly doesn’t do politically correct which is why Tiger likes him and avoids him. Nike products are for everybody.

“The Thomases and the Woodses are like family,” Woods said in a recent Golf Digest video interview, conducted by Henni Zuël Koyack, golfer turned broadcaster and a skillful Woods whisperer. “JT is like the brother I never had and Charlie is like the brother JT never had.”

Tiger has two half-brothers, Earl Woods Jr. and Kevin Woods, now in their 60s, from his father’s first marriage, but he didn’t grow up with them. He has a half-sister, too.

In other starring roles, at the PNC, you might see Jani Thomas, Mike’s wife, caddying for her husband. Also, Joe LaCava caddying for Tiger and Jim “Bones” Mackay, in his new gig, caddying for Thomas. And, in a cameo, Joe’s son (Joe Jr.) caddying for Charlie.

This PNC Championship is one that gets Tiger smack-dab in his comfort zone. Like his practice rounds at Augusta with Fred Couples and, in more recent years, Thomas, who actually talks publicly about Charlie, which tells you something about his relationship with Tiger: Tiger trusts him.

Charlie is named for Charlie Sifford. There are few golfers this side of Ben Crenshaw who do golf history as well as Tiger Woods. The PNC winner gets the Willie Park Trophy. Tiger can tell you how the name is derived, from Willie Park, senior and junior, Scottish pros who won six 19th-century Opens between them. Nobody called it the British Open then because it was . . . the only Open.

Extra points if you knew that Willie Park’s kid brother Mungo Park won an Open, too. Tiger does. There are Park names engraved all over the Claret Jug. Tiger appears on it three times himself. 

There will be all manner of focus, and understandably so, on Tiger’s walking (though he’ll likely be in a cart). And his swing speed (maybe 80 percent of normal). His PNC play will inevitably lead to speculation about his 2022 schedule. (Will he play in the Open at the Old Course in July? It’s pretty flat, and Woods has called it his favorite course in the world.) You might hear commentary about Tiger playing more like Zach Johnson than Dustin Johnson. Given where Woods has been, it’s all good. 

But Tiger’s own focus will be on Charlie, a sprightly little guy with a natural and flowing swing who will probably play from the same tees where 82-year-old Lee Trevino and 86-year-old Gary Player plant their pegs.

Last week, at Tiger’s event in the Bahamas, Steve Sands of NBC Sports talked to Woods during the broadcast about the PNC. Sands noted that at last year’s PNC Championship, the Woodses used Charlie’s tee shot on 15 or 16 of the better-ball event’s 36 holes. Woods said Charlie carried their team and he was only half-joking.

Last year, at the PNC, Charlie had his coming-out party. Last year, Tiger was still coming off his 2019 Masters win, likely a crowning achievement to a singular career. Last year was a party. Last year is not this year. Tiger is in a completely different place. He crashed his car and changed his life. He said he was lucky not to lose his life, or his right leg. Unsaid was that he was lucky not to lose brain function. In interviews, he has sounded completely alert. Tiger’s smart. Not in every way. (Who among us is?) But if you’ve been listening to Woods over the years, you know he’s smart. He didn’t get into Stanford only on his golf.

Tiger and Charlie would not be playing in this year’s PNC if Tiger thought Charlie had any kind of serious stress about the event. Tiger’s starting point, even before addressing his own physical readiness, had to have been a deep understanding of Charlie’s readiness. 

Tiger knows that, when it comes to playing golf shots, if you can’t do it at home, you can’t do it at a tournament. When it comes to golf, like Ben Hogan before him, he’s the ultimate warrior-realist.

He also believes that if you can do it at home, you should be able to do it at a tournament. Woods said that last year, when Charlie played so well. The proud father was not surprised to see Charlie do what he did because he had seen it at home.

When it comes to improving at golf, Woods, typically, is a study in patience. Over the years, he has often talked about “taking baby steps” when trying to learn a new shot, or when returning to the game from an injury.

Of course, Woods has also, at times, been reckless in rushing back to the course. The most famous example of that is the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, when he played with stress fractures in his left leg. He won, after 91 holes. Then he went to the surgeon’s table. Really, his golf life was never quite the same after that.

Woods, by his own admission, abused his body in the name of improvement. His body has betrayed him for much of his career. In 2016 and ’17, to cite only one example, he missed all eight majors. But that was then.

At next week’s PNC, there’s no chance Woods would do anything to willfully endanger his physical health, or his son’s psychological well-being. But the truth is it will take years for them to know the real costs and benefits of the event.

A remake of West Side Story is coming out. In a clip in a trailer, Riff, king of the Jets, poses a three-word question for Tony: “Friend or foe?” The heart of the matter. Doesn’t mean there’s an easy answer.

Forty-plus years ago Tiger appeared on The Mike Douglas Show as a golfing savant and as a shy toddler. All these years later, one might ask: “Good for him or not?” It didn’t do nothing. But there’s no easy answer.

From the day he was born, Charlie Woods — like his older sister, Sam — was going to lead a public, or at least semi-public, life. That’s a given, when your father is Tiger Woods. Tiger and his former wife, Elin, are surely navigating the complexities that come along with raising the children with a hugely famous father. In this age of celebrity obsession, and everybody and their grandmother carrying a video camera hardly bigger than a pack of playing cards? It cannot be easy.

Charlie will be on display next week. It’s not fair or right but it is a fact of his life. He handled last year’s event with a sense of humor, a sense of purpose and a sense of fun. Like his father has done forever, Charlie grinded over every shot.

You can call this PNC Championship a casual golfing get-together, and it is. But it’s a competitive golf tournament, too. It’s as important as you make it. It’s on our top-9 tournament list (winking emoji HERE*) not because it’s an important golf competition but because it involves an important competitive golfer. This is a major event because Tiger will care, and because we will, too.

This article originally appeared on Golf.com.

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