NASSAU, Bahamas — Justin Thomas smirked, mildly amused at all the questions coming his way about Tiger Woods. Without context, of course, that would seem odd to the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, PGA Championship winner and third-ranked player in the world.
Thomas is in the Bahamas in part as a reward for so many of those accomplishments, a season-ending boondoggle at the Hero World Challenge where he’ll get paid handsomely to chip away some rust with 2018 looming.
Any other week, Thomas would be inundated with questions about himself, but with Woods returning to competitive golf for the first time in 10 months, the storyline has been all about the 1,199th-ranked player who is playing just his 20th worldwide tournament since the first of four back surgeries occurred in 2014.
Moving his way up the leaderboard Friday with a 4-under-par 68 didn’t diminish that hype.
Thomas and the other players in the field at Albany Golf Club get it, even if it might seem a bit jarring. And if they don’t? Well, it might be a good time to check in with the likes of Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, Colin Montgomerie and dozens of others who spent the past two decades playing in Woods’ shadow and answering questions about him.
During Woods’ days of dominance, those players and many others spent considerable time not only trying to catch the 14-time major champion but also getting queries about him. Sometimes they bristled, understandably.
“He’s been the best player in the world for 20 years. You expect to get a few questions,” said Henrik Stenson, 41, who is the same age as Woods and has dealt with such inquisitions for years. “If you just shot 63 and are leading by two, you might rather talk about your round than somebody else’s, but it’s fully understandable with Tiger. There’s a lot of attention. It’s good for the game that he’s back.
“I think everyone wants to see him healthy and see what he can do. Fingers crossed that his game is holding up for the stress going forward. It will be fun to see him back competing.”
The vibe now is considerably different. Woods’ peers are interested in what he is doing, and generally seem excited by his return. Even Phil Mickelson, Tiger’s longtime rival who is not playing this week, offered that he looked forward to checking out Woods’ round Friday.
“It would be really great if he could be healthy,” Mickelson said by phone. “It would be great to have him back out and playing again.”
Athletes from other sports have weighed in on Twitter, talking about Tiger’s return. Steph Curry, Bo Jackson, Michael Phelps and Terrell Davis were among those who made reference to Woods’ and him playing again.
And players competing in the World Challenge were curious, too.
“Absolutely, we wanted the Tiger Woods update,” Matt Kuchar said. “On every hole, we were trying to find an update. We were asking some of the [TV] microphone guys for an update. Certainly I think everybody was excited and couldn’t wait to see how he would do.”
Players who spent years knocking irons against their heads trying to beat Woods have given way to those who idolized him.
Thomas, for example, was 7 years old in 2000 when Woods came to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and won his third straight major championship. Thomas said he was at Valhalla that week.
“I remember being in the clubhouse when he had that putt to get into a playoff with Bob May, just watching on TV,” Thomas said. “There was a little delay as soon as he hit it on TV, and you could just hear the crowd go nuts outside. Like a lot of kids my age, we grew up in that era, so it’s pretty fun to watch.”
On Thursday, for the first time in competition, Woods and Thomas played together, both shooting 69. They had played several casual rounds together near their South Florida homes as Woods prepared for his comeback.
All of which offers a bit more insight into the Tiger of today: his willingness to embrace and mentor younger players, while also accepting their offers of companionship and help as he worked toward returning.
“The guys have been great,” Woods said. “From JT [Thomas] to [Daniel] Berger to Rory [McIlroy] to all the guys, Rickie [Fowler], DJ [Dustin Johnson]. I played with all of them and they’re all trying to help me. They’re all texting me, ‘C’mon, let’s go out and play, let’s go play for some dollars and have a good time.’ And they really want to help me come back and play.”
That’s not something you would have heard from the 32-year-old Tiger Woods, who briefly led the tournament Friday and is tied for fifth place, five shots behind leader Charley Hoffman. You might not have heard it just four years ago when Woods was winning five times on the PGA Tour and capturing player of the year honors.
The goal was to keep his competition at arm’s length, and step on their necks on the way to victory.
For years, it seemed Woods did not understand or notice how much those in and out of the game appreciated what he had accomplished. But four years of misery has provided some introspection. At the Presidents Cup in September, he said he wasn’t sure at times if he would still have a golf career. This week, he also acknowledged that he has spent a good part of the past few years managing pain and realizing just how difficult it was to have any qualify of life, let alone swing a golf club.
“It’s pretty neat,” Woods said. “I think it’s very flattering, very humbling that so many people have really enjoyed what I’ve done throughout my first 20 years on tour. I put a few smiles, a few excitements, into people’s lives, and as an athlete, it’s very humbling.”
That’s not to say the intensity on the golf course isn’t there. Woods got agitated a few times Friday and, as his caddie Joe LaCava said, “As soon as he gets back into competition, it’s win, win, win. You know how he is.”
OK, well that hasn’t changed.