Tiger Woods has clearly taken torch from Palmer, Nicklaus as golf's most influential statesman
NASSAU, Bahamas — When Tiger Woods limped off his private plane in Wilmington, Del., 15 months ago to attend a players-only meeting that he organized and over which he presided with Rory McIlroy, he stepped emphatically into a new phase of his remarkable career. He announced to the world that he was taking on publicly a position in the game of golf that many people believed he already had been fulfilling for years surreptitiously and behind the scenes.
He was asserting his power as the driving force behind the PGA Tour.
It’s absurd to think that Woods hasn’t held sway over the sport since he began dominating it in the late 1990s. Not since Arnold Palmer had there been a bigger draw, singularly captivating not just golf but the larger sports landscape. Yet his influence was predominantly passive, manifesting in television ratings that spurred higher purses and ever-increasing rights fees for the tour.
As he returns to competitive golf Thursday at the Hero World Challenge, an offseason tournament he began hosting in 2000, Woods has assumed a key leadership role during a turbulent period in the professional game. In Delaware, he was helping the tour orchestrate a response to the insurgent LIV Golf League to prevent further loss of talent after the defections of name players such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson. Now he sits on the PGA Tour Policy Board, an additional seat created just for him at the request of more than 40 players who have remained in the fold and who collectively were shocked by commissioner Jay Monahan’s surprise announcement June 6 that he had entered into a preliminary agreement with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund—the deep-pocketed backer of LIV Golf.
While Woods, 47, undoubtedly has had time on his hands the last several months as he recovers from ankle fusion surgery in April, it is not lost on his younger peers that the 15-time major winner is expending considerable time and energy on their behalf as the tour not only works to finalize the details of its framework agreement with PIF before a Dec. 31 deadline, but also simultaneously fields alternate or complementary offers from several private equity firms.
“Everyone involved wants a return, that's just part of doing deals, but we have to protect the integrity of our tour and what that looks like and what that stands for going forward,” Woods said during a Tuesday press conference at Albany. “Trying to figure all that out in the past few months has been a very difficult task. But yes, there are a lot of different options, a lot of different … parts that are moving, trying to get a deal done, whether it's from all different types of money, what that looks like. But we have to protect what the tour is for the players.”
Couple that comment with his assertion, which he made more than once on Tuesday, that the deal Monahan sprung on the membership June 6 “can’t happen again,” and the message is clear. Tiger has everyone’s back—as only he alone can.
“Yeah, it's been great. It's been a lot. It's inspiring,” said two-time PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas, who has become Woods’ closest friend among the younger generation of stars. “He definitely takes it very serious. A lot of time on the phone, emails, Zoom calls, phone calls, whatever it may be. Obviously, he's spoken to it, but it was an honor for him to kind of get the torch passed to him from Arnold and Jack [Nicklaus, who together spearheaded the creation of the PGA Tour in 1968]. So I think he's looking at it as he wants to kind of pass that to whatever the following generation is.”
Jordan Spieth has been involved in many of the communications as the tour explores investment options even before he volunteered to assume the board seat recently vacated by McIlroy. He is well aware of how important Woods has been during the process.
“What he's done for us prior to any of this can't be overstated,” the popular Texan said. “But it is really cool that he's spending the time and the effort that he has been. … I know he doesn't sleep a lot, 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, but it is really, really cool that he's wanted to step up and take the role that he has.
“To answer your question,” Spieth continued, “he's not stepping in to throw influence anywhere. 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.”
World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who appreciatively referred to Woods as a “freak athlete,” also recognizes the importance of Woods’ involvement in the tour’s ongoing business negotiations.
“Tiger's not someone that's going to go at anything 50 percent; he's going to go 100 percent into whatever he's doing and right now that's a lot of stuff for the tour,” Scheffler said. “As a player, I'm extremely grateful for what he's doing. He has our best interests in mind, and he's not going to compromise when it comes to what's best for the players. His voice definitely holds a lot of weight. So for us as players, it's great to have him on our side, it's great that he wants to do this stuff.”
Like Spieth, Scheffler noted that Woods is at a point in his life where he could step away and “just go live his life.” Apparently, that is not in the script.
“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,” Thomas said. “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. 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.”
Woods admitted to being frustrated by what transpired June 6. Rightfully, he has more reason than anyone else to be infuriated by the blindside framework agreement. In the wake of those developments, McIlroy, the tour’s public face for nearly a year, decided to step back and then step down from the policy board. Woods understood, noting that, “we [he and McIlroy] put a lot of effort and time into the Delaware meeting and getting everyone aligned for that.”
Obviously, so much has changed since then. Except for one thing. He’s been battered and injured and mounted countless comebacks after countless surgeries. Still, Tiger Woods, one way or another, simply isn’t going anywhere.