LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas are separated by about 17 years on the calendar and 70 victories on the PGA Tour, neither of which has kept them from becoming friends away from golf.
Thomas first met Woods in 2015 on the range at The Players Championship his rookie year. They grew closer a year later during some of the darker moments for Woods when his back was killing him, he wasn't playing and had days where it was tough to walk. His future was never more uncertain.
Both are represented by Excel Sports, and Thomas asked agent Mark Steinberg if it was OK to reach out to Woods. Thomas and Rickie Fowler became regular visitors.
“I was thinking about him and wanted to hang out,” Thomas said. “That's when we became close. He couldn't do much. We wanted to make sure he was still positive, not getting down on himself, that we were still believing in him.”
Now they seem to spend as much time on the golf course.
Woods and Thomas will be playing together the opening two rounds of the Genesis Invitational, joined this year by Steve Stricker, as Woods goes for his record 83rd victory on the PGA Tour. It's the third straight year that Thomas and Woods have been in the weekday groups at Riviera, which probably isn't a coincidence, especially now that Woods is the tournament host.
Thomas was asked late last year why Woods likes him.
“I don't know,” he said. “To be honest, because I don't view him as Tiger Woods. I view him as one of my buddies. I needle him. To be perfectly honest, I don't kiss his (behind) like some people do. I absolutely respect him so much, and how much time he's given me. But it's just two buddies hanging out.”
They seem to hang out a lot inside the ropes. Even though Thomas and Woods have played in the same event only 35 times since Thomas joined the PGA Tour in 2015, they already have played together in 14 rounds.
More alarming is the record. In the early years for Woods, it was rare for anyone to have a higher percentage posting the lower score. In the 14 times Woods and Thomas have been in the same group, Thomas has a 10-1-3 advantage.
The only time Woods got him was the final round in the Bahamas last year, and Thomas is still fuming about that. Looking back, he was more caught up in beating Woods than winning the tournament, and he fears it cost him.
They started out two shots behind Gary Woodland, playing a few groups ahead of the leaders.
“I was so wrapped up in beating him that I forgot about the tournament,” Thomas said. “"I was tied for the lead with seven holes left. All I had to do was go 2 or 3 under. I just remember getting done and I was so mad. I've played a lot of golf with him, but never on a Sunday where we both had a chance.”
As playing captain at the Presidents Cup a week later, Woods took Thomas as his partner in two team matches, which they won. Woods said on Tuesday that he carried Thomas in those two matches, which got no argument from the youngster. Thomas replied Wednesday that if he hadn't made a 15-foot birdie putt on the last hole of the second session, Woods would not have gone undefeated for the week.
There's the needle.
Woods recalls those days when he could only play four tournaments — two at his holiday event in the Bahamas — over two years. He says Thomas and his father, Mike, would come by and ask him how to hit various short-game shots. He also learned that Thomas wasn't there to be his lackey.
“J.T. always wants to win,” Woods said. “"He's highly motivated and extremely competitive, and we compete in everything we do together. That's one of the things that I loved about him when I exited the game for a little bit and he was kind of coming onto the scene. He's so interested and thirsty for knowledge”
Riviera doesn't hold the best of memories for either one.
This is the one course where Woods can't seem to win. He is 0-for-10 as a pro. Next in line for courses where Woods has played the most without winning are Sheshan International in Shanghai and the TPC Scottsdale for the Phoenix Open. He has played each four times.
Thomas played Riviera in 2012 at the NCAA Championship when Alabama met Texas for the title. He lost his match against Jordan Spieth, who holed a fairway bunker shot on the 15th for eagle. What stung just as badly was losing a 5-shot lead in the final round last year to J.B. Holmes.
For both, there's plenty to keep their minds occupied this week. Riviera boasts the strongest field of the year so far, with nine of the top 10 in the world. Rory McIlroy heads the list, having returned to No. 1 in the world this week.