NASSAU, Bahamas — Tiger Woods showed all the signs of returning to normalcy in his first competitive round of golf in 301 days. He hit the driver a Bahama mile. He rolled in five birdie putts. He shot 3-under 69. He never winced or limped.
But if there was a bigger indication that Woods was back, it might have been that Justin Thomas got the freeze-out.
The classic Tiger Woods freeze-out.
Woods and Thomas have become buddies in recent years. They both live in South Florida. They play friendly rounds together. One day after Thomas won his first major at the PGA Championship in August, he posted a photo of himself and Woods with the trophy.
All of which explains why Woods, as the “committee of one” at his own Hero World Challenge, asked Thomas to join him as his playing partner for Thursday’s opening round.
“I kind of joked with him,” Thomas said earlier this week, “telling him I had to think about it a little bit. But no, it’s a cool deal.”
They continued to needle each other in the lead-up to Thursday.
“I’m probably just as excited to watch it as you are,” Thomas boasted. “But I’m also looking forward to trying to kick his ass.”
Woods replied, “There’s nothing wrong with that. It goes both ways.”
But when they arrived on the first tee at Albany Golf Club just after high noon, it was all business.
Thomas hit a drive down the left side of the fairway. Woods hit his drive down the left side of the fairway — 30 yards past Thomas’.
Then they walked after ’em. Separately.
Woods might not have displayed the steely mien of a Masters Sunday, but he was clearly in tournament mode from the start.
For a 24-year-old reigning player of the year who had never before been paired with Woods in a competitive round, Thomas had long waited for this day. One of his earliest memories of watching golf was at the 2000 PGA Championship, as he was in the Valhalla clubhouse and heard the roar when Woods made a putt on the final hole to force a playoff.
On Thursday, Thomas didn’t expect the same jovial atmosphere as their nine-hole practice round two days earlier. He knew what was coming.
“I won’t be as talkative; I’m sure he won’t, either,” he said beforehand. “When it’s just a twosome, you’re with your caddie and you’re kind of doing your own thing.”
As other playing partners of Woods have noted, competing with him is no regular twosome.
On the second hole, Thomas stopped his tee shot in its backswing when a camera shutter sounded. On the 15th hole, Woods had a search party of a few dozen people looking for his ball right of the fairway, while Thomas looked for his ball left of the fairway with only his caddie. And on multiple occasions, after Woods had putted out, the gallery had to be reminded to stand still because Thomas was also playing.
Now, don’t misunderstand the freeze-out. Woods certainly didn’t show any disrespect toward his buddy. And it’s not like they didn’t talk at all. During a lengthy wait on the 11th tee box, they joked around and continued laughing all the way down the fairway.
It’s the freeze-out that led to the long-held theory of Woods’ intimidation over fellow players. It helps explain his overall head-to-head record over the years.
Woods transforms from Practice Round Tiger to Competitive Round Tiger like Clark Kent turns into Superman. He’s the same guy, and yet he’s not. Thomas and the gaggle of Next-Gen superstars already knew that, but now they’re going to see it firsthand.
It’s the same competitive fire that has Woods speaking less about his past injury or his swing than his current place on the leaderboard.
“It was not only nice to get the first round out of the way,” he explained, “but also I’m only three shots out of the lead.”