PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Tiger Woods is a different man.
While Woods’ always made himself available to the media at the Players Championship in the past, it was typically a very matter-of-fact exchange, and often not a long session. That’s when he was winning majors and dominating the PGA Tour.
Tuesday, as Woods made his return to The Players for the first time since 2015, he was in a more reflective mood as he discussed everything, ranging from his past experience at TPC Sawgrass, to his grouping with Phil Mickelson, to being a role model for some of the best young players on Tour.
Woods will begin his first round at The Players at 1:52 p.m. Thursday, playing with Mickelson and Rickie Fowler. It will be the first time Woods and Mickelson have played together at The Players since Woods first won the tournament in 2001.
“We don't really get paired together,” Woods said. “Normally for most of our careers we were 1 and 2 in the world, and we're on opposite sides of the draw. Towards the beginning part where my back got bad, we started getting on the same side of the draw but not in the same groupings. We were on opposite tees.
“But now we're both later in our careers. It's fun for me to be able to have an opportunity to play with Phil the first two days. We don't really do this very often, unfortunately. I mean, the only time I can remember I think is the PGA and the U.S. Open in '08. Otherwise it just doesn't really happen. And for me to be able to play with a person I've gone against for over two decades, it's a lot of fun.”
Fun was not a word that Woods often used to describe anything but winning in his heyday. Despite winning twice at The Players, Woods’ career accomplishments were not as impressive as his results in other big tournaments.
“It was 12 years between wins here, and so, as y'all know, just looking at my record, I didn't play this place well. I struggled with it,” he said. “You have to play well here. There's no way of faking it around this golf course. You have to hit the golf ball well. You hit the ball well where you're in correct spots, and you can make birdies, and I didn't do that.”
As Woods fought to return to the tour after back surgery, a new generation of young stars were making their mark on the tour. Among them was Justin Thomas, who won the FedEx Cup championship last year. Woods and Thomas struck up a friendship and Thomas said that after winning last year’s PGA Championship.
“J.T. has become one of my friends, and he gives me crap all the time that he was on his dad's shoulders when I won (the 2000 PGA Championship) at Valhalla,” Woods said. “I'm like, ‘are you serious?’ I got a chance to know him by him coming over to the house, going out to dinners, just hanging out, and he's just a great kid. His mom and dad are fantastic, and just to have dinner with him to celebrate, that's very special when you're able to do that, and for him to share with mom and dad like that I think was probably even more special.”
Woods was such a driven player in his prime – a stretch of 15 years – that his singular focus on winning tournaments -- winning majors -- created a certain distance for many. He kept the outside world at arms length. Few athletes have had so many demands on their time. In team sports, there is always a teammate to take some of the burden of speaking to the media, fans and sponsors. For an individual sport like golf, there was only Tiger.
Now, although the press conference was packed with reporters and assorted media and PR personnel, Woods never seemed rushed to finish. Instead, he was candid and open-handed with his responses. Woods' golf game was always easy to appreciate. Now, Woods is becoming much easier to appreciate as a person.