ORLANDO – The tournament itself won’t start until Saturday, but the anticipation was not lacking as the main act – a duet – took the stage for a pro-am day at the chilly and breezy PNC Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club Grande Lakes Thursday.
And there were two immediate reactions.
The first, uniquely human impulse was to smile as 11-year-old Charlie Woods warmed up alongside his father on the beach. Although he had won a few junior tournaments, he had largely escaped the cameras. Now, however, his fundamentals, his tempo, his manners – heck, even Nike golf shoes – were a sight to behold. Here, before the world, was some sort of Mini Me version of Tiger Woods.
“They’re very similar,” said Justin Thomas, a friend of the Woods family in South Florida. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to be like your dad if your dad was Tiger Woods?” He definitely has all the manners. I think the folks back home, and all of you, will get really good entertainment watching him spin the club and putts and pump his fist.
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The second impulse, also human, was to hit the brakes. Tiger is arguably the greatest golfer of all time, and any comparison seems blatantly unfair. This week is meant to be fun, nothing more. Heck, we don’t even know yet if Charlie enjoys golf more than his first love, football.
“It’s so much fun for me to see him enjoy it, enjoy the game,” Woods said.
But is he old enough to do this?
“He’s played junior golf tournaments,” Woods said, “and he’s been in front and he’s been filmed by people. It’s a different world we live in now; everyone has a phone. ”
The important thing, he added again, is that Charlie has fun. It’s clear that Woods is trying to do what Mike Thomas, a longtime PGA teacher in Goshen, Ky., Did for his son Justin. Mostly, the two are stressed, the children need to have fun.
“Obviously he has all the tools already,” said Mike, who is helping Charlie with his game in South Florida and who will also play the PNC, along with Justin. “The two things that are most amazing to me are his speed – I mean, he’s a small person, and he gets the club moving fast – and his knowledge of golf is amazing. I understand his dad is Tiger, but he’s 11!
“He hits fades, draws, low shots and high shots,” he continued. “He sees bullets hitting a bank and everything.” Most 11 year olds just want to have a hit; he has a lot of shots in his arsenal. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with him because he has a ton of talent. What’s cool is that he seems to enjoy the game. He doesn’t get upset about a bad shot.
The PNC will feature the big winners (Bernhard Langer and his son defend) and family members (mostly sons, but also fathers and a stepfather), and will use a scramble format for the 36 holes. Team Woods and Team Thomas will be playing together, which makes sense. Charlie had expressed an interest at the same time as Mike confessed to Justin: “I’m not getting any younger. ”
Mike, who with his wife Jani recently moved into a winter home in South Florida, is Charlie’s only teacher aside from Tiger. “He helped from the start, he was a part of it,” Woods said.
At the same time, Justin, 27, took on a sort of big brother role. Indeed, if Charlie wants to become a golfer, if he makes a career out of it, Thomas has told a story that will probably last.
“I was at Tiger, and the three of us were in a putting contest and we played nine holes, the three of us straight, (Charlie) got no advantage,” said Thomas. “I think he was 8, 9 at the time. And that was one of the combined total three weeks I held the No. 1 in the world, around this time. And Charlie was leading in the last hole.
“He had 2 pennies, I had 1 penny, and I think Tiger was equal or 1 penny or something like that,” Thomas continued. “Charlie was talking, you know he’s like, ‘Here I am, I’m 9 beating the # 1 player in the world and supposed to be the best golfer ever.’ And he took three hits and I did, so I beat him. And that silenced him pretty quickly.
Thomas laughed, as did his audience, and we were there again, with those two competing impulses. Admiration at the idea of a 9-year-old beating his father and Thomas, and warning for an 11-year-old entering the hype machine.
“I hope Charlie will be comfortable,” Thomas said. “I would love to see him play well. I’d love to see him, you know, hold on, if you will. But at the same time, he is only 11 years old. He doesn’t need to be compared to Tiger; he doesn’t need to be compared to anyone. He needs to enjoy the game. I hope we can help him enjoy it a little more on Saturday.
The Cabin Attendant will not start until Saturday, but the word of the week, the E word, is already clear.