PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Everyone at Riviera Country Club is curious to see how Tiger Woods will play as he competes for the first time in an official PGA Tour event since July.
The course isn’t open to spectators for Wednesday’s pro-am at the Genesis Invitational but that didn’t stop a crowd from huddling around the elevated first tee at 6:30 a.m. PT to watch Tiger tee off. Among them: PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan.
Tiger still loves to be a dew sweeper, even on a cold, windy morning that meant bundling up in a black puffy jacket, a gaiter for his neck and a ski cap. Woods played 16 holes and then called it quits, walking with the amateurs in his group as they played the final two holes. As Rory McIlroy described the day, it was cold, windy and not much to learn.
But not if you were Aaron Rai, a 27-year-old Englishman preparing to make his second appearance in the Genesis Invitational. Best-known for wearing two gloves, Rai wasn’t in the pro-am Wednesday and figured the windy conditions wouldn’t make for a quality range session, so he slipped inside the ropes to study the player who helped inspire his love of the game at work.
“He’s been my idol since a very young age,” Rai said. “I have VHS copies of his U.S. Amateur wins and majors from the early 2000s. Me and my dad would watch them 3-4 days a week.”
Rai remembers attending a Tiger golf clinic in London in 2000 or 2001 with his father and the two of them driving to Scotland to watch Tiger play a practice round at the 2014 British Open at Muirfield. Since Rai turned pro, they’ve been in the same field twice: at the 2019 WGC Mexico Championship and last year at the British Open at St. Andrews. Rai said he played about an hour ahead of Woods in the second round and when he turned in his scorecard he circled back and watched Tiger play 17 and 18 and cross the Swilcan Bridge.
On this occasion, Rai took notes and observed how Tiger scouted a course and the shots he hit. Color him impressed.
“It’s just special to be able to see him and watch him and be inside the ropes and see him go about his business. You can see even now why he’s still the greatest of all time,” Rai said. “The shots that he plays, the way that he thinks, you can tell why he’s Tiger Woods.”
Rai also took note of how Tiger, who hasn’t played 72 holes in a tournament since the Masters, was getting around on his bum ankle.
“He’s moving great even when we were walking down No. 11, there were a couple of downhill walks and pretty severe uphill walks with rough terrain. While he was talking to others, he was breezing up those slopes,” Rai said.
It was just a pro-am round – take it with a grain of salt – but Tiger’s ball-striking brilliance was on display.
“A couple of the shots he’s played in this wind, you don’t see players hit them,” Rai said. “He hit a low burner drive on 11 and then way up in the air with a ton of spin on the par-3 14th and do it again downwind at the par-3 16th those are shots which not many players can play. To have that versatility at both end of the spectrums, he looks great.”
Arguably the highlight of the day for Rai happened on the 11th hole. He admitted he was too starstruck to approach Tiger – “I never would have had the courage to say hello,” Rai said – but word got to Rob McNamara, Tiger’s right-hand man, and he made the introduction to Tiger.
“It was very conversational,” Rai said. “He asked me what time I’m playing tomorrow. We spoke about Rory [McIlroy] and JT [Justin Thomas] and how they play a little bit together back home. He told me a little bit about himself and his garden at home with his short game area. Then he wished me all the best for the rest of the week. He made me feel very welcome.”
Rai smiled wide as he recalled their conversation, which was over before he knew it, but it was a chilly morning he’d never forget.