Alastair Johnston: “Tiger Woods is different”

Fathers and sons and golf? The three have been joined together since there were sticks and small rocks and lone crooked flagsticks protruding from barren fields in Scotland, while kings still ruled. This week’s PNC Championship, which begins Saturday at Orlando’s Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, will garner extra attention as Tiger Woods, partnered once again with his 12-year-old son, Charlie, makes his return to golf following a horrific single-vehicle crash in Los Angeles in February. The 36-hole event, featuring 20 teams and played using a relaxed scramble format, will be televised by NBC to a national audience over the weekend. Many interested golf fans (and Woods’ fellow competitors) are waiting to get some inkling of where he stands in his arduous rehabilitation 10 months after his frightening accident. He counts himself a lucky man.

That Woods is walking, let alone playing golf again, just days before his 46th birthday on Dec. 30 says something about his resolve, work ethic, stubbornness and steely resiliency. It also serves up a statement for the event in which he is playing and the true reason he is here. Woods said in an interview at his own Hero World Challenge two weeks ago that he is a long, long distance from competing on the PGA TOUR once more. Take away this weekend’s TV cameras and bright lights, strip the competition down to its very core, and Tiger might be as human as we ever have viewed him. As he tweeted when he committed to play on Dec. 8, he is playing as a dad. That’s all. A dad looking forward to playing the game he loves alongside his son, who seems to love it, too. Acorn, meet the tree.

Charlie Woods stole the show at last year’s PNC Championship, showing off incredible skills for an 11-year-old, not to mention so many of his father’s famous mannerisms. Tiger was nervous for him, understandably, but Charlie thrived in the spotlight, showing off his dad’s laser focus, the spinning club twirls, and even his dad’s trademark fist pumps. Charlie’s 5-wood from 175 yards to 3 feet to set up an eagle-3 at the par-5 third hole in last year’s PNC made the evening highlights of every media outlet on the planet. Along with PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan and Jay’s dad, Joe Monahan, longtime IMG executive Alastair Johnston – the creator of the Father-Son event born in 1995 – joined Tiger and Charlie for a pro-am round at the PNC a year ago. Tiger was clearly different, Johnston said, so filled with joy to watch his son in the arena. Johnston has had an interesting window into the life of Tiger, not only through his management company, IMG, but as his former next-door neighbor back when Woods lived in the tony gated Isleworth enclave in Orlando. In fact, Woods was awash in accolades upon returning to Florida following his mind-blowing, 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters, the first of his 15 major championships. He went out to retrieve his mail one day, and Johnston wanted to offer his own congratulations. You know, Johnston told Woods, you now are qualified to play in the Father-Son.

Alastair Johnston, statements

“He looked at me as if I had three heads, and asked, ‘What’s that?’” Johnston said via phone on Monday. laughing. “I said, ‘Oh, you’ll see.’” Johnston, who worked side by side with Arnold Palmer for many years, made a terrific discovery during a stroll through the locker room one day during the 1995 Senior PLAYERS Championship in Detroit. There were courtesy phones set up for players to use. On one phone was Jack Nicklaus. Raymond Floyd was on a phone in a different corner. On a third phone, Dave Stockton. All three men had played that afternoon, but seemed much more interested to check in with home to see how their sons were doing in various college and junior competitions. Johnston had an idea: What if there was a tournament, a real competition, in which fathers could compete alongside their sons? And to make the tournament field elite, each father needed to be a major champion (winners of THE PLAYERS later were added).

Eventually, what began as the Father-Son at Vero Beach’s Windsor Club in 1995 would evolve into something much more inclusionary, hence the name change to the PNC Championship. Today, the qualifications are to be a major winner (male or female) competing with a family member. Fuzzy Zoeller, Jerry Pate and Bernhard Langer all would compete alongside their daughters, and last year, Annika Sorenstam competed alongside her father, Tom. This week’s field includes LPGA No. 1 Nelly Korda, who is playing alongside her famous tennis-playing dad, Petr. Players have teed it up with stepsons. Bubba Watson is playing with his father-in-law. “Adding grandfathers,” Johnston explained, “allowed Arnold (Palmer) to compete, and nobody was objecting to that.”

Many major champions who’d like to compete simply aren’t able because daylight limits the field to 20 teams, which makes for some tough late-year phone calls for Johnston. It’s not so much telling the famous major winner the news, but envisioning the conversation that person must then have with his relative to break the news. Johnston starts thinking about fields two and three years in advance, and said he is driven by “great narratives.” It intrigues him to see Watson, a three-time major champion, able to compete with his father-in-law. The Cinks – 2009 Open Championship winner Stewart Cink and his son, Reagan – were invited to return after they successfully paired for two PGA TOUR victories last season, with Reagan on his dad’s bag.

Of course, there is no bigger, or more attention-packed, ongoing narrative than Woods hitting shots once more. A year ago, he let Charlie, who plays from forward tees, take care of many of the drives for the team, and this week, that unquestionably will be a point of strategy.

“This is Dad’s ‘Take Your Kid to Work Day,’” Johnston said. “And Tiger and Charlie epitomized that. Tiger was very nervous for Charlie (last year, in Charlie’s debut). This year he’ll be relying on Charlie.

“Without having done it last year, I don’t think Tiger would be playing this year. But the way Charlie handled it all … I knew that if there was a way of doing it, there was a good chance that Tiger was going to play.”

So away we go. It’s a late-season “hit-and-giggle” event, as Tiger may affectionately call it, but don’t think the shots won’t count. They will and they won’t, but on a bigger scale, represent an important milestone and tiny step forward as Tiger Woods moves toward the future that remains uncertain.

When Saturday dawns at the PNC, Woods will be there not as the man trying to break Sam Snead’s record for TOUR victories or a man contemplating resuming his pursuit of Jack’s major mark. Tiger Woods will be hitting shots as a dad, like many of us do on Saturdays. And there always is great importance in that.

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