Justin Thomas and golf's superstars excited, optimistic for Tiger Woods' return

In an interesting turn of events, Tiger Woods has become a bit of a mentor to the best young stars in golf. What seemed to be casual relationships with Jason Day and Rory McIlroy have turned into seemingly legitimate friendships with Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. Add it all up, and Woods has turned into a modern father figure of sorts, at least on the course.

"As I was telling a lot of my friends at home is that I miss playing golf for fun," Woods said Tuesday in regards to his fully healthy back. "Go out there and hit and giggle and play for some denominations and have a good time. 

"I hadn't done that in two years. I play nine holes here and 18 holes here, and then I have to take three days off because my back was killing me. I hadn't been able to play fun golf like that with my friends in such a long time, forget being competitive."

Those friends are the guys who grew up idolizing him. The kicker in all of this? I think Woods enjoys it more than the young stars.

"Now to come out here and be able to do what I've been doing the last few weeks with the guys, it's been a lot of fun," Woods said. "I played some great rounds with the guys at home. They've been fantastic, to be honest with you. I've gotten to know a lot of them through the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cups, and I've really become very close with a few of them. I played golf with Rory. I played golf with Berger, J.T., Rickie, Dustin, and it was fun. It was fun to be able to do that again, which I hadn't done in years."

Woods will tee it up with one of those pals on Thursday in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge, reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, Justin Thomas.

"Yeah, it's cool. To me it's just really cool that he asked me a couple weeks ago, kind of brought it up and kind of joked with him telling him I had to think about it a little bit," Thomas said. "But no, it's a cool deal. Like I said, I'm excited to be at this tournament and have an opportunity to play well and kind of end the year hopefully on a solid note after the success this year."

Thomas was asked about why he thinks there's still so much interest in Big Cat.

"The same reason that, you know, when Michael Jordan came back to play basketball," Thomas said. "When you're one of the greatest of all time to play your sport and just do things that people can't and haven't done before and you just have such a huge fan base."

"The game of golf is only helped when Tiger's around," Rickie Fowler added to Golfweek last month. "He's done so much for our game. The global awareness, bringing more TV, more fans, the growing of our purses, the growing of our game in general. What he was able to do from the late '90s to the early 2000s, I don't think anyone's moved the needle that much, and no one moves the needle as much as him still."

But these aren't just his newfound buddies who want to see him playing again. These are now his peers who want to say they beat Big Cat when he was actually feeling it.

"You've just done things that nobody has done and that's what's made it fun to watch. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be playing for the amount of money that we're playing for if it wasn't for him. Just the amount that people outside of golf, if they had any idea the amount that ... we have to thank him for that. Obviously there's a lot of other players, but there's nobody that moves the needle like him, even now. 

"And if he had 15 wins and two majors, then yeah, people wouldn't care as much, but he has 79 and 14 majors. I mean, I'm probably just as excited to watch it as you are. I just get a front row seat to it on Thursday, but I'm also looking forward to trying to kick his ass, to be perfectly honest."

J.T. wasn't the only one talking trash, either.

What I've found myself hoping for over the past few years is an era where we get to watch golfers like J.T. try to kick Woods' ass and for Woods to get the better of them sometimes. How perfect of an ending would be that be to Tiger's career? The best ever shows his stuff to those who have split his throne. I'm here for it, and as long as his back holds, I think at some point we might get just that.

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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