ORLANDO, Fla. – There are alarmingly few guarantees in golf for Tiger Woods these days. The Champions Dinner each April at Augusta National has a spot on his schedule and he appears to be holding out hope for one more turn at St. Andrews, although given his medical history and The Open schedule that seems ambitious.
Everything else is a 30-point, all-bold question mark.
He'd love to play the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship, but as this year’s acronyms prove (DNP, MC, WD, respectively), the decision is increasingly out of his hands. Even the most obvious of landing places, like this month’s Hero World Challenge on a warm and flat course against a limited field, are often undermined by injury and a body that’s seen better days.
This version of Tiger Woods is only as capable as modern medical science can make him, but there is a single outlier, a destination he can pencil in as long as he remains upright. The PNC Championship, a relaxed two-day event that pulls on heart strings as well as legacy, has become perhaps the only must-play event for Woods going forward.
It was obvious on Sunday at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club as Woods and his famous son, Charlie, battled the likes of Justin Thomas, Vijay Singh and John Daly (and their relatives).
“The bonding, by far, just to be able to be out there and share this with Charlie and for (caddie Joey LaCava), to share it with his son [Charlie's caddie, Joe Jr.], as well,” Woods beamed when asked what the father-son gathering means to him. “Sharing it with our own family. It just means so much to all of us.”
Charlie's dad played just nine official competitive rounds and was never in contention in 2022. Tiger recently admitted that his abbreviated schedule actually exceeded his own expectations this year and he’s been rather clear to anyone who will listen, the limitations of his competitive future.
“The goal is to play just the major championships and maybe one or two more. That's it,” Woods has repeatedly explained.
Left unsaid in that take is the PNC Championship, which for the last three years has become the Woods family member-member. Charlie and his father have played alongside Justin Thomas and his father, Mike, in what can best be described as a comfort pairing. They’ve been joined by LaCava and his son, along with Jani Thomas, Justin’s mother who caddies for her husband, Mike.
Calling the vibe relaxed would be an understatement.
“There's definitely more banter and conversation between shots, or even during shots. We would never have that much going on during a tournament,” Justin Thomas said. “We obviously want to play well. We want to perform well for our partners. We want to have fun out here, make a lot of birdies, but it's just not the main priority. It's wanting to be out here with my dad and his son.”
The PNC was Tiger Woods’ only start in 2021, following a car crash in February that required multiple surgeries on his right leg and continues to limit his ability to play and practice. A painful bout with plantar fasciitis in his right foot kept Tiger from playing two weeks ago in the Bahamas and Charlie was clearly limited by a left ankle injury at the PNC, and yet there they were – “Team Ice Bath,” as Tiger jokingly called his side – five shots off the pace with three holes to play and grinding.
Following a solid start on Saturday – an effort young Charlie playfully dubbed “the best [Tiger] has ever played in a while, and that kind of shocked me a little bit” – the putters went cold on Day 2 and Team Woods finished tied for eighth and six shots behind the champions, Team Singh.
Throughout a Hall of Fame career Tiger hasn’t spent much time celebrating T-8’s, but not all top-10 finishes are created equal.
“It was an incredible week just to be able to play with Charlie and to be able to experience it, again, with the Thomases,” Tiger said. “We had the most amazing time inside the ropes with each other. And then Charlie and I, we played great yesterday. And today we were both like walking penguins out there.”
Being able to tool around 36 holes in a golf cart certainly helps endear Tiger to the PNC, as does the tournament’s penchant for pairing Team Woods with Team Thomas, but this is about Charlie. A lifetime spent building walls and keeping observers at arm’s-length has been replaced, at least for one week, by a welcoming smile and a father’s pride.
Tiger has taken to caddying for Charlie at junior events, but there’s something about the PNC that bridges the gap between the competitor with a dwindling shelf life and a golf dad. At the PNC, he can be both.
“Being a parent, you always want to be the protector and guider of them and teach them skills that they will need in life when you're not around. And so that's the most important thing about being a parent,” Tiger explained.
The scrutiny Charlie has endured at this event the last three years is beyond misplaced, and a little gross, but then growing up as Tiger’s son would always come with an outsized dollop of hyperbole and the 13-year-old has impressively embraced it. Tiger has, after all, drawn unrealistic expectations his entire career, the price of being a generational talent, but he’s taken to tempering those expectations in recent years.
The soon-to-be 47-year-old has painted an abundantly clear picture of his competitive future and the only thing that’s certain is the uncertainty of it all. The exception is the PNC Championship and a father-son outing that now stands as one of the few guarantees for Tiger in golf.