When Tiger Woods was a kid, he had a picture of Jack Nicklaus on his bedroom wall. It wasn’t that Jack was Tiger’s hero or role model. Tiger looked to his father, Earl, for that.
The reason that Nicklaus’ was the last face Tiger saw before he closed his eyes at night was that Jack was the greatest player of all time, and if Tiger wanted to one day be the best, Nicklaus was the singular target.
Whether Woods has hit the bull’s-eye is up for discussion in grillrooms, on social media and on golf talk shows. But there’s no question that he is the best of his generation.
Now, a new generation has come roaring to the top of golf’s world rankings, leaving an often-injured, pain-filled and humiliated Woods in its collective exhaust. Although Woods hasn’t played a competitive round since February, and the news that he made recently came with legal consequences, the young players who have taken over the game still look to him as their golf hero.
When Woods turned pro at age 20 in late summer 1996 and won two events within his first two months on the PGA Tour, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas were 3 years old. When Woods won the last of his 14 majors – the 2008 U.S. Open – Thomas was 15 and Spieth turned 15 shortly thereafter.
These kids had never seen Nicklaus play in his prime, except when Golf Channel would run a special on the 1986 Masters. Even then, Nicklaus was past his best days. Instead, they were watching Woods dominate the game in 2000 in ways neither Nicklaus nor anyone else had before or since. To them, Woods was the gold standard, the one whose golf game was to be emulated.
Thomas was at Valhalla as a 7-year-old with his father at the 2000 PGA Championship when Woods made a 6-foot putt to tie Bob May and send the tournament into a playoff.
“That week was the reason that I was like, OK, this is really what I want to do,” Thomas said from the Bahamas, where Woods is starting his comeback today at the Hero World Challenge, an unofficial PGA Tour event that benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation. In fact, Woods and Thomas are paired together in the elite 18-man event, at 12:05 p.m. EST (tee times: http://bit.ly/2idhoEC).
Thomas, the reigning PGA Championship winner and the PGA Tour player of the year, has had a friendly relationship with Woods for the past year and a half.
“I reached out to him last year, asking about Augusta National,” Thomas said. “I figured between him and Mr. Nicklaus, there aren’t two better brains to pick. Living down in Jupiter [Florida], we’d get together for a round of golf or dinner. I’ve been fortunate that he’s taken a liking to me. He’s someone that I’ve looked up to for so long, who’s been a role model of mine growing up, so it’s kind of surreal.”
Spieth was the recipient of some Tiger texts while Spieth was trying to win the British Open in July.
“It’s amazing,” Spieth said. “I was getting texts from him after each round of the Open Championship. [It’s] the fact that he’s interested, following and rooting you on and wanted an exciting finish. From a guy you looked up to growing up in the game, kind of as an immortal figure in the game, and all of a sudden he’s rooting for you down the stretch in a major, it’s a pretty cool experience.”
Spieth, Thomas and the other young players who have been successful on the PGA Tour have been the beneficiaries of a kinder, gentler Woods, who is well into the back nine of his playing career. Jason Day has developed a relationship with Woods, and the two talk and trade texts often.
Imagine Woods when he was the age of Spieth and Thomas sending texts to other players, urging them on and celebrating their success. He was so single-minded that he barely spoke to other players at any time, especially when competing.
Now, one month before his 42nd birthday, he seems to see his place in the game differently. Certainly, he wants to compete and win. That’s in his DNA and never will wear out. Appearances say that Woods wants to be more collegial in his relationships with other players. The fact that he willingly became an assistant captain at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup points to a notion that his legacy might be important to him.
Much of Woods’ private life never has been a source of admiration for anyone, especially young Tour players. But the changes that he appears to be making, both physically and with his attitude, could get the perception of Woods closer to that of Nicklaus, regardless of whether he wins any more major championships.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf