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After all the fist pumps, all the miraculous shots, all the tearful hugs and stoic press conferences, it seems strange to think that a driving range session would rank among the finest highlights of Tiger Woods’ career … but after Thursday, that’s exactly where we are.
Woods was swinging away on the range at the Ritz Carlton Orlando, preparing for this weekend’s PNC Championship. That in itself wasn’t especially notable. What was remarkable was the way the half-size golfer right next to Woods — his son, Charlie — was mimicking Tiger’s moves exactly.
The long, smooth swing. The pause to watch the shot fly true. And the unconscious, elegant club twirl, the kind of flourish that comes from knowing you’re in a groove. Two generations of Woods, in perfect harmony.
Tiger and 11-year-old Charlie are playing together in this week’s PNC Championship, and that’s vaulted the notoriety of this clambake of a tournament to near-major levels. Golf Twitter is following the Woods family’s every move. Betting sites are laying odds on Team Woods (they’re well behind Team Thomas, which features Justin and his father). The tournament will be broadcast on NBC — not just one of its offshoots or streaming services, but straight-up, big-dog NBC — on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
It’s a whole lot of hype for a glorified club championship … and it’s also the most attention a young golfer has gotten since, well, the old man was a young man.
“It’s so much fun for me to see him enjoying the game,” the elder Woods said after a practice round with Charlie. “That’s the whole idea. Just enjoying it, hitting shots, creating those shots. Some of the shots he hit on the front nine, the back nine, it’s just so cool for me to see him enjoying the sport.”
Tiger Woods, young champion. Tiger Woods, disgraced hero. Tiger Woods, reinvigorated master. Tiger Woods … doting father? Yeah, it’s one hell of a broad career arc, but it’s where we are now.
Woods has been a fixture at the very top of the sporting pyramid for so long that it’s tough to remember a time when he was an unproven rookie, not all that much older than 11-year-old Charlie is now. But there’s a stark difference between 1990s Tiger and 2020s Charlie: Charlie doesn’t have Earl Woods for a father.
When Tiger burst into the national consciousness in the mid-1990s, his father, Earl — Green Beret, self-taught golfer, high priest of the Church of the Chosen Tiger — stood right there in the spotlight alongside him. Earl was the apotheosis of the Sports Dad, the male equivalent of the Stage Mom, the parent who not only believed their child was the greatest ever but demanded you believe it too. Part of a long, strong-willed lineage that also included dads like Marv Marinovich, Richard Williams and LaVar Ball, Earl Woods infuriated the golf establishment and upended the perception of a parent’s role in a star athlete’s life.
Earl Woods taught Tiger to play the game on the local Navy Golf Course in Cypress, California, appropriate given the level of military precision Earl brought to his training of Tiger. He famously put Tiger through batteries of tests designed to hone his focus: dropping golf bags during his backswing; jingling coins to disrupt his concentration; always demanding more, more, better, better.
At the same time, though, Earl was trumpeting Tiger’s feats to the world. Tiger was on television at the age of 2, and by the time he was Charlie’s age, the tiny golf wizard was a frequent presence on morning news shows, Earl by his side all the way.
The turning point came in a 1996 Sports Illustrated article, where Earl humbly proclaimed Tiger would “do more than any man in history to change the course of humanity.” Not stopping there, Earl piled the expectations to the sky: “He is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.”
The wildest twist to the story: Earl Woods came closer to being right than anyone ever would have predicted. Woods became the most famous golfer in history, one of the most famous faces on the planet. Say what you will about Earl’s methods and manner — and he and Tiger had some notable differences of opinion — but it’s unlikely Tiger Woods, the man, would have become Tiger Woods, the icon, without Earl’s influence.
Which brings us to Charlie. The children of the very famous exist on a different plane than the rest of us: comforted by privilege, yes, but always shadowed by the towering, inescapable achievements of their parents.
Carving out your own identity when you’re the child of American royalty is no easy task. While playing football at the College of William & Mary, J.D. Gibbs earned the joking nickname “Son Of,” because every news article would refer to him as “son of” then-Washington Redskins coaching legend Joe Gibbs. Novelist Joe Hill chose that moniker as his pen name because he didn’t want to be compared to his father, Stephen King. Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t match either the exploits or attitude of his father on the track, so he went the opposite direction, becoming a more human and relatable figure than his father ever was.
In the 21st century, a surname is a ready-made brand. There’s been so much hype about the possibility of Bronny James playing in the NBA with his father LeBron that if Bronny can’t make the exceptionally difficult leap, it’ll surely disappoint some shortsighted acolytes. And Brexton Busch, son of two-time NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Busch, already has corporate partners … at age 5.
Tiger’s taking very much the opposite approach with Charlie, keeping him largely out of the public eye until very recently. Charlie was born eight months after his father triumphed at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, nine months before his entire family’s life would explode all over the tabloids.
Unlike his father, Charlie Woods has lived and learned the game behind high gates, shielded from the outside world but with access to the very best courses, equipment and instruction in the world. It’s paid off; Charlie has won several nine-hole tournaments, often with his father carrying the bag … and you’ve seen the swing.
“He’s been playing junior golf tournaments, and he’s been out in front, having people video him,” Tiger said. “This is a different world that we live in now. Everyone has a phone, everyone has an opportunity to video. He’s been out there. He’s enjoying it, and that’s the whole idea.”
It’s absurd to assume we know anything about what goes on in the private lives of celebrities and athletes; the Tiger scandal of 2009 should have taught us that. Even so, you look at the way Charlie imitates his dad’s every mannerism — from club-twirling to trash-talking — and that tells you a lot. Take a look at the way Tiger greeted his children when he came off the green after winning the Masters in 2019 — the unrestrained joy and glee as he embraced them — and that will tell you even more.
Maybe Charlie Woods will grow up to play professional golf. Maybe he and his dad can combine to top Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors. And maybe Charlie will go on to live a life completely outside of golf, where he won’t always be referred to as “son of.” Either way, it’s clear his dad is in his corner … and that’s the biggest win of all.
“They’re very similar,” Thomas said Thursday. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to be like your dad if your dad is Tiger Woods?”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.
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