Why the PNC Championship hits different in 2023

Tiger Woods and his daughter sam woods

Tiger Woods had a new caddie on the bag this week: his daughter Sam.

Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. — That Bernhard Langer, aged 66, has now won five PNC Championships should tell you something. This tournament has been around a while. That he (and his son, Jason) did it with video game scores of 60-59 should tell you something, too. This tournament is unusual, quirky, and lighter than most everything we’re used to.

None of the normal nuts and bolts matter at the PNC Championship, a scramble between two-player teams of a major champion and a family member. So on a Sunday afternoon in the heat of NFL playoff contention, you’d be forgiven for not tuning in to watch the Langers win another oversized championship belt.

But unlike the NFL, where another rollicking, profitable season pushes forward, golf kinda needs this right now. Especially this year.

As we near the proposed, Dec. 31 deadline for a deal between the PGA Tour and the Saudi PIF — we’ve got two weeks folks! — the future couldn’t be any murkier. Is Patrick Cantlay starving for control of the policy board? Are there more defections coming? Would that even do anything for LIV’s sagging viewership? What about the women’s game, and that theoretical merger between the LPGA and the Ladies European Tour? Everyone seems embroiled in something. 

The Woods family at the PNC Championship.
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But at the Ritz-Carlton, a mostly basic course at a mostly basic resort, in a city many people visit to have basic vacations, we have a tournament the competitors absolutely adore and a purse size they wouldn’t even recognize. A tournament that places them on an unfamiliar stage. That makes them tear up, with infinitely more hugs than bogeys. A tournament so, uh, wholesome, that it actually brought LIV Golf and the PGA Tour together, if only in the slightest way. 

That’s right, Graeme McDowell, noted member of LIV franchise Smash GC, was at the PNC Sunday morning, inside the ropes, just watching. He had brought his young son, Wills, of course, observing old man Tiger Woods limp from the putting green to the chipping green, then chipping green to practice range.

Best I could tell, T-Dub and G-Mac didn’t exchange any words, but that couldn’t have been the point of this visit. McDowell had to be considering his potential future involvement in this tournament, as a major winner himself. That is once the trials of pro golf today become the weird history of pro golf tomorrow. 

Wills was more interested in spending time with his buddy, Will McGee, best known ‘round these parts as Annika’s Son. McGee is the youngest in the field and, at just 12 he’d have no clue about this, but his ebullience was the best thing going at an event dragged down by wind and rain.

He hovered about the campus with the kind of pep Rory McIlroy has when leading a tournament by three. Light on his toes, seemingly bouncing with each step, smiling at the chunked shots on the range, telling Tiger Woods all about his junior golf schedule, then sacking himself on the couch for an afternoon nap. Every 44- 48- or 68-year-old in the field sees a bit of their former, golf-giddy selves in him. They’re probably envious, too. Will doesn’t have to concern himself with mergers and acquisitions.

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Will tugged at all of our heartstrings when he tugged on his mom’s hand as they walked up the 18th fairway Sunday afternoon, begging her to slow down so they could really enjoy the moment. Mom teared up as she explained it afterward. Will did too! It may be the most relatable thing in a week’s worth of relatable things. Seeing your parents cry is the quickest way to do so yourself. 

This tournament has always delivered a bit of emotion, but the event has always felt a bit too important, for different reasons. In recent years it has served as our last chance on the calendar to ask Tiger Woods questions before the new year, and to gauge how he will look when he returns to PGA Tour action. This year was no different, except there weren’t many questions about his form. Maybe because we kinda didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t play very well this weekend. He’s still rusty. The weather was sloppy and his iron shots weren’t special. Yet another reason to look away.

But no — what’s fun about Woods at the PNC is what happens between shots. When he leans in close to his caddying daughter, Sam, explaining the nuances of mis-hits with the driver. When he and Stricker discuss putting technique. Or when get claps back at his overconfident son.

You’ll never see Woods hand out more hugs than you do at the PNC. Both to his kids, but also to the rest of the field. Hugs for Annika, who he calls Anny; hugs for all four of the Strickers; hugs for Tom Lehman and John Daly and Justin Thomas’ grandma.

Woods the golfer is a bit stuck between generations. At times, he misses those guys from the 2000s he used to beat up on, the lot of them now on the Champions Tour. And yet, he longs most often for his friends on the modern PGA Tour, whom he thinks he can still contend with. More than anything, that Tour is begging Woods to stay young, asking him to pull the Tour policy board toward the most sustainable future of the sport. But that’s a job for tomorrow. The day after the PNC. Something you’d never think about as you watch Steve Stricker’s family roast him in the middle of a press conference.

It’s no wonder the primary way golf fans experience the PNC is via social media, with pictures of Daly being Daly leading the way until Justin Thomas’ dog Frankie slaps a wet kiss on Tiger just off the 16th green. Our social media-inclined society calls these moments of levity timeline cleansers, used to combat the constant spread of information singed negativity. A 30-second video of puppies in a field is cute, sure, but its other purpose is just bringing our minds back to level.

Well, the PNC serves as one big timeline cleanser. A scheduled cleanser before Jan. 1, 2024. A pro golf news cycle cleanser before who-knows-what. We’ll be back to the nuts and bolts here soon enough, but I won’t be upset if Christmas comes first. I imagine the entire field feels the same way. 

The author welcomes your comments, concerns, and any other notes at sean.zak@golf.com.

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine, currently working on a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews. You can read about those travels here and catch his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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