Considering that Justin Thomas is not the type to exaggerate, we have to take him at his word. We must believe him when he says that winning his first major title only tied for first place among the greatest thrills he had that week.
A day after he won the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina, he had a celebratory dinner in Jupiter, Florida, with Tiger Woods. “It’s crazy. I probably got just as much joy out of that as I did winning, which is just bizarre to say and probably for you all to hear me say,” Thomas said during his pretournament news conference Wednesday at the Northern Trust — his first start since the PGA 11 days ago.
“It’s surreal, honestly. It’s crazy how someone that I did, and still do, look up to so much takes such interest in how I’m doing,” the most recent major champion said at Glen Oaks Club in Old Westbury. “He has taken an unbelievable role with some of us young guys, wanting to help us if he can.”
That story says what a presence Woods still is, even in his absence. It is a reminder of how much he influences the game, for better or worse.
Thomas, Jordan Spieth and others grew up in the Woods era, following his template to become major champions. Their play is a reflection on him. So is the growth of the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour playoff format that Woods was the first to win, in 2007. On the other hand, the fact that this week’s tournament had to leave its traditional home at Westchester Country Club has Woods’ imprint all over it. There is no secret he did not like the layout — a fixture on tour — and if he didn’t like it, its future was sealed.
There also was the sad coincidence that on the very day Woods posed, smiling, with Thomas and the Wanamaker Trophy, authorities in Florida released a toxicology report showing the dangerous cocktail of drugs Woods had in his system when he was arrested on a DUI charge. A reasonable person would be aghast that a man would get behind the wheel in that condition.
To current tour players, though, Woods shows a nurturing, avuncular side. That comes through in the team room at the Ryder Cup or across a dinner table with someone who just won a major.
“It’s also fun for him because, you know, he can reminisce on the 14 times he did it and the 79 times he has won an event, or whatever it was,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of us out here who look up to him and want to accomplish the things that he accomplished. So, any time that he wants to hang out or speak some words of wisdom, we’re going to listen.”
Golfers in their 20s cannot get over that the icon for whom they grew up rooting for is rooting for them. “It’s amazing,” Spieth said. “I was getting texts from him at the Open Championship after each round, like, ‘Good start, kid’ and then it was, ‘Keep it going’ and ‘You’ve got this, stay focused.’ That’s a pretty cool experience.”
Patrick Reed, who imitated Woods’ practice of wearing red and black even before they met through the Ryder Cup process, said, “We talk quite a bit. We don’t really talk much about golf. It’s more about how the kids are and how he’s doing, because at the end of the day, our friendship is because of who we are.”
A good point can be made that few, if any, people really know who Woods is. There is no debate that he was a once-in-a-generation golfer, a personal total eclipse of the tour. Is it all in the past tense? Spieth doesn’t think so, saying, “I still believe that in his mind, he’s going to work hard to try and get back out, even though a lot of people are doubting him, which I think will only help him.”
Woods can use all the help he can get, except when it comes to being a presence in his absence.