CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The biggest thrill for Tiger Woods when he played in his first PGA Pro-Am event as a 17-year-old 25 years ago was getting "free range balls."
The biggest thrill for 17-year-old Shahbaz Hashmi was getting to play with Woods, who is "the reason I play golf."
Hashmi earned the opportunity to play with Woods in Wednesday's Wells Fargo Championship Pro-Am at Quail Hollow Club by writing the winning essay for The First Tee Program for youth. His topic was the core value of perseverance.
"I can't think of a better example of perseverance than Mr. Woods,'' Hashmi said.
Woods, who has 79 PGA Tour victories and 14 major championships, hasn't won a tournament since 2013 because of back and knee issues that dropped him from the best golfer in the world to an also-ran.
But over the past few months he has a second-place finish in the Valspar Championship and a fifth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He was in contention early in the Masters and made the cut in a major for the first time since the Masters in 2015.
His game is on an upswing, as evidenced by his 6-under par 65 in the Pro-Am.
"It's a dream really,'' Hashmi said of playing with Woods. "Tiger Woods -- and I'm speaking for my whole generation of golfers and athletes here when I say this -- he's our idol. He's our hero. And of course we've seen him go through such tough times, but to see him come out on the other side ... that's just so inspiring."
Hashmi wasn't intimidated playing with Woods, who always draws one of the biggest galleries on tour. But he was a little nervous when they first met on the driving range and called the whole experience "surreal.''
"It's a little eerie how it all happened,'' Hashmi said. "I go to the end of the range, next to Aaron Baddeley. We talked a few minutes. The next thing I know, I look back and Tiger's bag is right next to mine. Somehow I didn't notice him walking in. That first range ball, I had a wedge in hand and almost shanked it, but kind of saved it last minute.
"After that I had a great warm-up session and a wonderful time and it translated onto the course."
Hashmi's three birdies contributed to Woods' team leading the Pro-Am through midafternoon at 15-under par.
"One thing he was telling me, which is what his dad used to tell him growing up, with driver in hand you can swing as hard as you possibly can or want, as long as you do two things,'' Hashmi said. "One is hitting center face. And holding your finish until the ball drops.
"Coming in, I was holding my finish to the best of my ability."
Hashmi's high school teammates and coach kept him in the dark for a week about winning the chance to play with Woods, who didn't commit to the tournament until last week.
It wasn't until his phone was blown up with text messages while he was in physics class studying for exams that he found out.
"I'm (like), 'What in the world is going on?''' said the San Antonio, Texas, native, who has a 4.0 grade point average and +0.9 golf handicap. "Tiger has committed. Unbelievable. I was jumping around like a rabbit for the next couple of hours.''
Woods, remembering he was about a hundred pounds lighter and didn't know where the ball was going when he played in his first Pro-Am, was impressed with Hashmi's game.
"He hit it well, putted well,'' Woods said. "This is not an easy golf course. He just did wonderfully. It was exciting to see him out there with his dad. They were into it. You can tell they're very close to one another. It's something that was fun to see.'
Hashmi was impressed by everything Woods did.
"One thing that really impressed me the most about Mr. Woods is you can't really tell on TV his tempo,'' he said. "You see him swing with speeds of 129 [mph]...."
Woods smiled, interrupted and said, "One time."
But tempo wasn't what gave Hashmi his most memorable moment.
"He let me hit his putter today,'' Hashmi said. "That was surreal. I can't say one thing I was impressed by because I was impressed by everything.''