Com­peti­tor be­fore men­tor

Woods to of­fer less ad­vice as he re­turns to tour.

Dayton Daily News - - SPORTS EXTRA - By Doug Fer­gu­son

Tiger Woods flew to Cal­i­for­nia with Justin Thomas on his plane and had rea­son to feel older when they landed.

Thomas, the reign­ing PGA Tour player of the year, is among sev­eral play­ers who were get­ting se­ri­ously hooked on golf about the time Woods was win­ning tour­na­ments at a rate never be­fore seen. He had vague rec­ol­lec­tions of Woods mak­ing his PGA Tour de­but at Riviera as an am­a­teur and asked for de­tails.

It was 1992. Woods was 16. That was a full year be­fore Thomas was even born.

“I’m sorry, but that re­ally put things in per­spec­tive re­ally fast,” Woods said Tues­day at the Ge­n­e­sis Open, where he opens play to­day.

This is the new world for Woods even as he tries to bring back his old brand of golf.

In his first PGA Tour event af­ter re­cov­er­ing from his fourth back surgery, Woods tied for 23rd on a tough test at Tor­rey Pines. His play has im­proved. The big­ger dif­fer­ence is Woods ap­pears more con­tent with his place in life. And with golf get­ting younger and bet­ter by the year, the big­gest change might be how Woods is per­ceived.

Is he more of a men­tor? Elder states­man? “Idol?” Thomas sug­gested. “I still look at him as what I looked at grow­ing up. It’s just now I can beat him,” Thomas said with a laugh, surely a left­over barb from their flight to Los An­ge­les. “Now I’m play­ing against him and try­ing to beat him, in­stead of watch­ing on TV and root­ing for him.”

Woods has not won since his five-vic­tory sea­son in 2013, and it was prob­a­bly longer than that since he had an aura of be­ing un­beat­able. He has played only 21 times since the first of his four back surg­eries a week be­fore the 2014 Mas­ters.

He was here, and he was gone, and then back again, but never for very long.

Dur­ing that time away, when Woods wasn’t sure about his fu­ture in golf, he be­came more ac­ces­si­ble to play­ers. He texted them at the Pres­i­dents Cup in South Korea in 2015. He was in their ears as an as­sis­tant cap­tain the past two years at the Ry­der and Pres­i­dents cups.

Ja­son Day, dur­ing his rise to No. 1 in the world, could barely make it through a news con­fer­ence with­out men­tion­ing a phone call or a text mes­sage with Woods to seek out ad­vice. In the weeks lead­ing up to his most re­cent re­turn in the Ba­hamas, Woods played with Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Daniel Berger and Dustin John­son.

This is not the same guy who once didn’t even ac­knowl­edge his mother walking to the first tee at the Mas­ters.

Maybe that will change. Per­haps it will take win­ning, though Woods clearly has tem­pered his ex­pec­ta­tions early in his come­back.

“I think now they’re start­ing to see me as a com­peti­tor be­cause I’m start­ing to come back again,” he said. “For a while there, that wasn’t the case. I’m just a per­son that they could bounce ideas off of — what did I used to do and how do I feel these things, what do I do in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, cer­tain shots. And they would pick my brain. But now it’s more of a play­ing com­peti­tor now. Yeah, we still give the nee­dle and we still have a whole bunch of fun. But they know I’m play­ing in a tour­na­ment, and so are they.”

Thomas and Woods have the same man­age­ment at Ex­cel Sports. Thomas re­calls be­ing ner­vous the first time he met Woods on the back of the practice range at TPC Saw­grass in his rookie sea­son. Three years later, they were on his pri­vate jet fly­ing out to Cal­i­for­nia.

Thomas has a short his­tory of soak­ing up in­for­ma­tion from the best to ever play the game.

It was two years ago, when he got off to a slow start his sec­ond year on tour, that he cashed in on an of­fer from Jack Nick­laus to call if he ever needed any­thing. So he called him. He re­mem­bers sit­ting with Nick­laus for more than two hours the first time they talked.

“I lis­tened,” Thomas said. “What else am I go­ing to do with some­one like him? But I think Tiger can re­late a lit­tle bit more. We’re closer in time in terms of golf cour­ses, the age, stuff like that. He’s played against peo­ple I play with.”

Stories abound in golf about play­ers help­ing one an­other, sug­gest­ing tips, of­fer­ing views on what they see if a player is strug­gling.

But it usu­ally goes only so far.

Thomas re­calls a practice round at the Mas­ters last year with Phil Mick­el­son, when the three-time Mas­ters cham­pion left him hang­ing.

“Phil says, ‘When I’m done play­ing, I have a cou­ple of things with your game that will take you to the next level. They’re go­ing to be so help­ful for you that you’re go­ing to be bor­der­line un­beat­able,’” Thomas said. “I’m like, ‘OK, what are they?’ He says, ‘I’m not telling you now.’ It’s the com­peti­tor.”

Thomas paused and smiled.

“I don’t know,” he said, “if Tiger is hold­ing back some stuff with me.”

REED SAXON/ AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Tiger Woods greets a well-wisher at Riviera Coun­try Club, where he will com­pete against play­ers he has helped dur­ing his ab­sences from golf.

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