Column: Tiger Woods playing dual role of player and mentor

Tiger Woods flew to California with Justin Thomas on his plane and had reason to feel older when they landed.

Thomas, the reigning PGA Tour player of the year, is among several players who were getting seriously hooked on golf about the time Woods was winning tournaments at a rate never seen. He had vague recollections of Woods making his PGA Tour debut at Riviera as an amateur and asked for details.

It was 1992. Woods was 16.

That was a full year before Thomas was even born.

"I'm sorry, but that really put things in perspective really fast," Woods said Tuesday at the Genesis Open.

This is the new world for Woods even as he tries to bring back his old brand of golf.

In his first PGA Tour event after recovering from his fourth back surgery, Woods tied for 23rd on a tough test at Torrey Pines. His play has improved. The bigger difference is Woods appears more content with his place in life. And with golf getting younger and better by the year, the biggest change might be how Woods is perceived.

Is he more of a mentor? Elder statesman?

"Idol?" Thomas suggested.

"I still look at him as what I looked at growing up. It's just now I can beat him," Thomas said with a laugh, surely a leftover barb from their flight to Los Angeles. "Now I'm playing against him and trying to beat him, instead of watching on TV and rooting for him."

Woods has not won since his five-victory season in 2013, and it was probably longer than that since he had an aura of being unbeatable. He has played only 21 times since the first of his four back surgeries a week before the 2014 Masters.

He was here, and he was gone, and then back again, but never for very long.

During that time away, when even Woods wasn't sure about his future in golf, he became more accessible to players. He was texting them at the Presidents Cup in South Korea in 2015. He was in their ears as an assistant captain the last two years at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.

Jason Day, during his rise to No. 1 in the world, could barely make it through a press conference without mentioning a phone call or a text message with Woods to seek out advice. In the weeks leading up to his most recent return in the Bahamas, Woods played with Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Daniel Berger and Dustin Johnson.

This is not the same guy who once didn't even acknowledge his mother walking to the first tee at the Masters.

Maybe that will change.

Perhaps it will take winning, though Woods clearly has tempered his expectations this early in his comeback.

"I think now they're starting to see me as a competitor because I'm starting to come back again," he said. "For a while there, that wasn't the case. I'm just a person that they could bounce ideas off of — what did I used to do and how do I feel these things, what do I do in certain situations, certain shots. And they would pick my brain. But now it's more of a playing competitor now. Yeah, we still give the needle and we still have a whole bunch of fun. But they know I'm playing in a tournament, and so are they."

Thomas and Woods have the same management at Excel Sports. Thomas recalls being nervous the first time he met Woods on the back of the practice range at TPC Sawgrass in his rookie season. Three years later, they were on his private jet flying out to California.

Thomas has a short history of soaking up information from the best to ever play the game.

It was two years ago, when he got off to a slow start his second year on tour, that he cashed in on an offer from Jack Nicklaus to call if he ever needed anything. So he called him. He remembers sitting with Nicklaus for more than two hours the first time they talked.

"I listened," Thomas said. "What else am I going to do with someone like him? But I think Tiger can relate a little bit more. We're closer in time in terms of golf courses, the age, stuff like that. He's played against people I play with."

Then again, Thomas only knows the guy he grew up watching on TV.

"It is different," he said. "I've never played against Tiger when he's been the unbeatable Tiger. Until you experience it, it's hard to really understand."

Stories abound in golf about players helping one another, suggesting tips, offering views on what they see if a player is struggling.

But it usually only goes so far.

Thomas recalls a practice round at the Masters last year with Phil Mickelson, when the three-time Masters champion left him hanging.

"Phil says, 'When I'm done playing, I have a couple of things with your game that will take you to the next level. They're going to be so helpful for you that you're going to be borderline unbeatable,'" Thomas said. "I'm like, 'OK, what are they?' He says, 'I'm not telling you now.' It's the competitor."

Thomas paused and smiled.

"I don't know," he said, "if Tiger is holding back some stuff with me."

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