July 15, 2024


The Intersection of Information and Insight

Tiger Woods changed professional golf. Now he’s trying to save it

10 min read

NASSAU, Bahamas — The last decade of Tiger Woods’ career has been a series of stops and starts, the golf world grasping for each and every comeback before he goes away once more. The promise of another new beginning has brought this group here, waiting patiently for a Mercedes-Benz much like the ones that have ferried the other key partners to this part of Albany Golf Course.

But then Tiger Woods just appeared, seemingly from thin air. He walked around the corner of the white tent — alone — like he was simply on his morning stroll and said, “Hey, guys,” to the waiting media. The No. 1 player in the world is in the field at this relatively obscure golf tournament in the Caribbean, as is the 2023 PGA Tour champion, two 2023 major winners and most of the rest of the biggest names in golf. But as it always does, all attention focused instead on the man currently ranked No. 1,328 in the world.

At first, as Tiger Woods sat down for his annual press conference to preview the Hero World Challenge — a no-cut, limited-field event he hosts for himself and his PGA Tour buddies — and discuss the state of Tiger Woods, he looked just like the 15-time major champion that he is. But as the conversation unfolded, the reality of the new person in front of us became clear. Here was Tiger Woods, PGA Tour policy board member. Tiger Woods, the co-founder of a new golf league. Tiger Woods the investor, the restaurateur, the course designer. Tiger Woods, the 47-year-old legend transitioning toward and becoming the authoritative, senior presence of a sport in crisis.

“Don’t say senior,” Woods quipped. “I’m not there yet. I’ve got a couple more years.”

Woods is also a golfer, again. And he plans to keep playing for a while, saying his right ankle is strong enough to allow him to walk 18 holes without pain following his post-Masters subtalar fusion surgery. He even hinted at playing a once-a-month schedule in 2024, which would include all four majors. But very little about Woods’ focus Tuesday was on his playing ability and future career, joking, “I’m just as curious as all of you with what’s going to happen. I haven’t done this in a while.”

His latest comeback was the secondary storyline, the focus instead on the future of the PGA Tour and men’s professional golf. He was a politician/executive, talking confidently about each and every issue for the PGA Tour. He answered questions about the status of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia negotiations with the same conviction as if PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was saying it. Maybe more authority, wielding his power around three different times to say Monahan making deals with the PIF without the players input “can’t happen again.”

He drove home the need for the players to control their own future, the same need that led to players pressuring Monahan to add an extra board seat for players and for that seat to go to Woods. He spoke of multiple “other options” for the PGA Tour to find new funding if the PIF deal doesn’t happen. He answered questions about the new TGL league he helped start as a counter to the team model of LIV, the rival league funded by PIF.

Woods, one of the most idiosyncratic and ruthless competitors in the history of sports, is now operating as the leading force for change in golf.

Think about the way Woods talks about his body, in which he says his foot and ankle pain are gone but it also means he has to put pressure on other parts of his body. Now it goes to his knees or his back.

“The forces have to go somewhere,” he said.

For decades, Tiger Woods put his entire focus into becoming the most dominant golfer of all time. That golfer is fading. The forces had to go somewhere.

In April, two months before the surprise PIF announcement, a hobbled Woods played a Masters practice round with Tom Kim and Rory McIlroy. The 21-year-old Kim is a sponge for this kind of stuff, peppering Woods and McIlroy with constant questions ahead of his first Augusta National appearance. How would you approach this hole? What does the wind do here?

And Woods answered. He shared trade secrets and let one of golf’s brightest young stars in, just like his idols had once done for him.

“Hey, I was lucky enough to have played with Freddie (Couples) and Raymond (Floyd) my first year,” he said that April day with a smile. “And Seve (Ballesteros) and Ollie (Jose Maria Olazabal). That was incredible. And then Jack and Arnold, the Par 3 Contest with those guys. That’s what this tournament allows us to do, is pass on knowledge and gain knowledge from the past and apply it.”

Tiger Woods made his latest return to the course this week at the Hero World Challenge. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

Woods allowed himself to be nostalgic ahead of a major championship, a stark departure from his heyday. He shared stories of Floyd giving his advice on an approach shot by a gallery on No. 2 (“Well, you hit it right over at them, and then right before it lands, you yell ‘fore’”). He joked about a terrible tee shot in 2005 that set up his iconic chip on the 16th hole. He talked about his son, Charlie, and how he might not view golf with the same competitive vigor he once did, but it’s still everything to him. “So the joy,” Woods said, “it’s different.”

That element cannot be left out with Woods at this moment in time. Maybe once he was so obsessed with greatness that he didn’t have the bandwidth or the interest for such things, but now he can see he is the figure the entire golf world looks to, and he has the capacity to use it.

“It was an honor for him to kind of get the torch passed to him from Arnold and Jack,” said Justin Thomas, perhaps the current player closest to Woods. “So I think he’s looking at it as he wants to kind of pass that to whatever the following generation is.”

This is a phase seen often in the golf world. Palmer and Nicklaus aged into brands as much as golfers in their later years, and Woods was the largest business brand in golf history by his mid-20s. He launched the TGR Foundation with his family as early as 1996 and has since become a billionaire. Yet Woods’ presence continues to grow. He owns restaurants — The Woods in Jupiter, Fla., miniature golf-dining chain Popstroke and now an upscale New York City sports bar, T-Squared Social, with Justin Timberlake.

Woods was once the face of the EA Sports golf video games but now is on the cover of PGA Tour 2K23. In the height of the PGA Tour’s war with LIV, his venture capital firm teamed with Rory McIlroy to start the indoor TGL team golf league (which was originally slated to begin in January but has been delayed to 2025). And his TGR Design firm has created more than a dozen courses, multiple of which have hosted PGA Tour events.

“Tiger is intimately involved in every step of the golf design process, from selecting the projects to laying out the routing to providing shaping direction during construction,” longtime friend and TGR Design president Bryon Bell said. “He spends a lot of time on site during construction finalizing the golf strategy by locating bunkers and laying out the green complexes.”

But Woods taking on these roles is not simply symbolic, a name and a face guaranteed to sell a product. He is deeply involved, and that’s almost the point. McIlroy served as the players’ largest voice in the board room and was also often put in the position of explaining PGA Tour decisions over the last two years. He managed to find success on the course (the 2022 Tour Championship, two wins this season) but did so while always on the phone handling board duties. Then Monahan went behind McIlroy and the players’ backs to create the framework agreement in which Monahan and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyad are attempting to create a joint company with both the PGA Tour and LIV under its umbrella. That only cemented McIlroy’s desire to step away from the board (Jordan Spieth has taken his place). But Woods doesn’t have those same playing commitments. He can pour himself into this, and pouring himself into things is what Tiger does.

“I know he doesn’t sleep a lot,” Spieth said, “but he’s spending most of his waking hours thinking about how to better the PGA Tour for the players. And he doesn’t have to do that. He could ride off into the sunset if he wants. We know that’s not his personality.”

Woods is constantly on the phone, sending emails or hopping on Zoom calls. “I think he definitely takes it very seriously,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t take it lightly.” There was a clamoring this fall, in the wake of a blowout loss in Rome, for Woods to captain the United States Ryder Cup team in 2025. Woods does not have time to think about that. “There’s too much at stake with our tour to think about a Ryder Cup right now,” Woods said.

Woods’ presence in these meetings is formidable, reflecting his stature. “He’s not stepping in to throw influence anywhere,” Spieth said. “It just comes with him when he walks in the door. He’s a listener and he has a lot of experience. He’s seen the PGA Tour go through a lot of different changes over almost 30 years for him now. He comes with that kind of perspective as well as somehow a way of recognizing what can be good for the PGA Tour and its entire membership when he’s never been an ordinary member, but it doesn’t seem lost on him.”

Regardless, it seems to have Woods energized, full of purpose. His golf game is not some crucial focus, as Thursday’s first round was the first time he even played 18 holes since making the cut at the Masters in April but withdrawing midway through the third round. He has no idea who will caddie for him next season and didn’t seem to put much thought into it. But when it came to questions about the tour, he jumped.

So he was asked: Do you enjoy being this presence in golf?

“Well, I enjoy the fact that I’m able to make an impact differently than just hitting a golf ball. I made an impact on the PGA Tour for a number of years hitting a golf ball and doing that. I can have, I think, a lasting impact by doing what I’m doing, by being on the board and being a part of the future of the PGA Tour.”

There’s a photo of Charlie Woods and his high school golf team celebrating the Florida state championship they just won, with a freshman Charlie finishing T-26 in the individual portion. In the background behind them, you can see Tiger Woods. He’s just standing there in a puffer vest, holding an umbrella in his right hand. He’s just a dad.

He talks about Charlie almost any time he speaks, saying he’s able to share a bond over the sport of golf the same way he did spending late hours putting on the Navy Golf Course with Earl. The recovering star carried Charlie’s bag for 54 holes at a junior golf event in early November. Few athletes have ever been as publicly connected to their father as Woods was, Earl training Woods so hard as a boy but then being the first to receive an emotional embrace after those sweet victories. And for better or worse, Charlie’s young golf career is already receiving a similar, obsessive sort of attention.

Because now Woods’ attention isn’t on his own achievements. Far from it. But they are on his son, and potentially on what his son will take part in.

“I’m sure there’s some kind of scenario in his head where he’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever Charlie wants to do, that’s great.’ But I’m sure he has some visions in his head of, ‘Oh, I would love to have Charlie be playing out here, and then the kids he’s playing against,’” Thomas said. “It’s bigger picture. I think as little as he’s playing, it’s very clear that the decisions he’s making and thoughts that he has isn’t for his own good, it’s for the betterment of the game.”

This isn’t about whether Charlie Woods becomes a PGA Tour golfer. It’s about the fact that one of the most hyper focused, compulsively competitive athletes to roam this Earth, who played one of the most individual sports there is, has shifted his thinking. He does not seem worried about himself. He’s worried about the sport. And history says don’t get in Tiger Woods’ way when he’s focused on something.

“I’m pleased at the process and how it’s evolved,” he said. “Also frustrated in some of the slowness.”

There he is. That’s the Cat.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)

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