As one of golf’s elder statesmen now, Tiger Woods is getting the same big-picture questions that Nicklaus and Palmer always tackled as tournament hosts. He weighed in Tuesday for the first time on two significant stories – the proposed Premier Golf League that threatens to take stars away from the established PGA and European tours and the recently released yardage report from the R&A and the USGA.
As for the PGL, Woods said he has been approached by the proposed world league’s deep-pocketed backers. His presence would be a key to its success and it could be easier to lure him away if he breaks the PGA Tour’s wins record.
“Just like everybody else, we’re looking into it,” he said.
Woods’ interest certainly seems piqued.
“Like all events, you’re trying to get the top players to play more collectively,” Woods said. “That’s one of the reasons we started the World Golf Championships because we were only getting together five times a year – the four majors and the Players. … This is a natural evolution of the way ideas like this are going to happen going forward.”
As far as the long-awaited distance report, Woods doesn’t seem opposed to the idea of a different set of more stringent equipment parameters governing the top players on the world’s elite tours and the ones recreational golfers abide by – so-called bifurcation.
“That’s certainly on the table whether to bifurcate or not,” Woods said. “It’s only 1 percent of the guys or women using that type of equipment. Part of the discussion going forward is do we bifurcate or not? That’ll probably be well after my career when we figure that out.”
Woods has seen the distance debate evolve rapidly in his nearly 25-year career. In 1997, he beat Davis Love III in a playoff at Kapalua while Love was still using a persimmon driver. Now more fitness- and data-conscious players have dialed in the combination of strength and technology to routinely hit hybrids and fairway metals distances they used to cover with drivers.
“We’re running out of property trying to design golf courses from the back tees 7,800 to 8,000 yards,” Woods said. “But on top of that we want to keep the game more enjoyable and have larger participation. Having larger heads and more forgiving clubs adds more enjoyment to the game. It’s a delicate balance.”
There would be a certain poetic symmetry – a career arc that bends full circle to where it all began – if Woods could break the all-time PGA Tour wins record this week in his own event at his hometown Riviera Country Club.
At a tournament and venue, of course, where Woods has famously never won.
“For me not to win an event that’s meant so much to me in my hometown,” Woods said…, “hopefully I can put it together this week and we can have a great conversation on Sunday.”
There is very little magic that Woods hasn’t already conjured up in his career. He’s dominated. He’s tumbled. He’s come back.
But one thing Woods has never done is win his hometown PGA Tour event in Los Angeles. The L.A. Open was the tournament where he made his tour debut as a 16-year-old high school sophomore amateur in 1992. He was runner-up twice in 1998-99 at Valencia and Riviera, but like Jack Nicklaus he’s never put his name in that 94-year-old trophy case.
Now he’s the tournament host for the fourth year – the first time with PGA Tour elevated status as the Genesis Invitational. That puts Woods and his event in company with the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village. The elevated status grants winners three-year tour exemptions instead of two. It also means a smaller 120-player field and a higher $2 million purse.
“To have that elevated status with two iconic figures in the game of golf in Jack and Arnold, it’s incredible for us and for this event,” Woods said. “It’s incredible for me to have played this event at 16 years old and to now have this event and the status that is has is special.”
Woods’ relationship with the bygone Los Angeles Open goes back further than his playing days. As a kid, he would join his father in the galleries watching the likes of Lanny Watkins, Fred Couples and Corey Pavin burnish their resumes at Riviera. When he was 8, he stood practically alone behind the eighth green to get a close-up look at Tom Watson only to be told “Get out of the way, kid,” by the eight-time major champion’s caddie, Bruce Edwards.
“There’s a lot of history with me coming here,” the 44-year-old Woods said.
He can make history again the week by winning for the 83rd time on the PGA Tour, breaking his tie with Sam Snead who won the L.A. Open twice at Riviera in 1945 and ’50. But to do that he’ll have to beat a stellar field that includes nine of the top 10 players in the world and 19 of the top 25. Among the favorites is freshly minted world No. 1 Rory McIlroy needing to fend off Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm to maintain that status.
“It just adds to the event to have these players support this,” Woods said.
Since returning in October from yet another surgery – this time an arthroscopic procedure to repair minor cartilage damage in his left knee – Woods has played very much like his old self. The reigning Masters champ won his first start after surgery at the ZOZO Championship in Japan, tying Sam Snead with his record 82nd career PGA Tour victory. He contended and finished fourth in his boutique invitational in the Bahamas before outclassing everyone on the nuances of Royal Melbourne as playing captain in the Presidents Cup, winning all three of his matches in the American comeback victory over Ernie Els’ International team.
He opened 2020 with a top-10 finish three weeks ago at Torrey Pines on the Sunday when Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, and returns to a Los Angeles still reeling from the tragedy that took the lives of the NBA Lakers legend, his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, and seven others.
“Like a lot of people it’s hard to put into words what transpired and the fact that it’s a reality,” Woods said of Bryant’s death. “Part of me thinks that it’s not real. … It’s hard to accept that reality.”