Tiger Woods is back to competing against history, ghosts and grainy photographs.
For all the handwringing about finding him a rival — Rory McIlroy on some days, Phil Mickelson on others — Woods's legacy will be measured against men whose day has already passed.
Tiger's childhood bedroom wall listed Jack Nicklaus's 18 majors. He wants to own his swing, like Ben Hogan did. And especially this week, at the Greenbrier Classic, among the rolling hills of White Sulphur Springs, W. Va, we are reminded of his pursuit of Sam Snead's record 82 PGA Tour victories, which Woods trails now by only eight after winning last week at the AT&T National.
Woods's first round on the Old White TPC didn't go so well. He carded a one-over 71 that featured three bogeys and a double-bogey seven, leaving him eight shots behind Vijay Singh.
Still, the Slammer would have loved seeing Woods at his old haunt, even at less than his best.
Woods was five years old when he met Snead for the first time at an exhibition in Calabasas, Calif. Snead was a living legend, Woods the wunderkind who had appeared on the Mike Douglas Show. They were paired together over two holes.
"I was this little snot-nosed kid," Woods said. "I couldn't carry it very far and I hit it into the water. And [Snead] tells me to go pick it up out of the water. When my dad was alive he'd tell me that I was slightly competitive, even at that age. I didn't like [Snead] telling me to pick the ball up because my dad always taught me to play it as it is. There's no such thing as winter rules. So I went in and played it and made bogey on the par 3 and bogey on the last hole."
Snead made two pars.
"I still have the card at home — he signed it," Woods said.
Few could have imagined they'd ever meet again, but Woods made sure they would, winning the first of three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles in 1994 — thus receiving an invitation to the Masters — and then winning the Masters by 12 strokes in 1997 and earning a seat at the annual Masters champions' dinner.
If Snead's biggest impact was felt on the golf course, it is followed closely by his storytelling at the champions' dinner.
"We would never end a Masters dinner without Snead telling a dirty joke, and he could tell some of the dirtiest jokes," the Hall of Famer Doug Ford once said. "And Byron Nelson, who was a Holy Roller, he was always embarrassed. 'Oh, no, Sam, don't,' and we'd overrule him. 'We want to hear the joke!' I don't know if this new chairman would take it, but that used to be the key to the dinner."
Ford will tell you the champions' dinner hasn't been the same since Snead died in 2002. Woods doesn't argue.
"We've had countless dinners and conversations," Woods said. "He was always so funny to be around, and the stories he'd tell? The needling was non-stop. That was one of the neat things about being around Sam."
Woods's best moments with the media often come reliving tales of time spent with players from previous generations. On Tuesday, he recalled how Snead had told him about the history of the Greenbrier, where Snead once shot 59 in 1959.
"I knew about the history of it from Sam, how much he loved coming here and being here," Woods said.
Despite Woods's choppy start Thursday, Snead is still providing Woods inspiration. He often points to Snead, Nicklaus and Tom Watson as players who hoisted trophies late in their careers.
"To do it for that long, that many generations, is pretty phenomenal," Woods said of Snead.
Woods, often called an old 36, sounded like he was just getting started.