Tiger is famous for being one of the first guys out in practice rounds and Tuesday morning was no different.
I had been plotting to join him once I knew he was going to play in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but it’s not so easy to pull that off. First of all, there are no tee times for practice rounds. The only things I knew for sure was that sunrise was at 7:27 and Tiger goes when he’s ready to go.
Was he going to the range first? Was the range lit so that he could at least see to hit balls? They do that in Hawaii with a full field and short days. Would he dare head out before there was enough light to see the breaks in the greens? Probably not, but I decided to get up a 5 AM just to be safe. What I didn’t take into account was heightened security because of Tiger.
I arrived in the huge mostly empty media parking lot at 7:10. Should be no problem. Except that my color-coded bag tag that was supposed to exempt the media all week from security searches suddenly was insufficient. So my well worn three-year shortcut to the media center was politely blocked and I had to go all the way down to the Main Entrance. The clock began ticking in my head; I hadn’t planned on this.
Fortunately, there was no line to speak of, so my bag got retagged despite my the story that it shouldn’t have been necessary, I got wanded and I began to bustle my way to the media center…the clock ticking ever louder in my head. I thought I was going to be okay, but you never know. When would he start? Any minute, I thought, it was growing lighter by the minute. I’d forgotten that there’s still a lot of light after dawn. Why had I dithered around at the house?
I blew into the nearly empty media center (in the converted cart barn under the clubhouse) and immediately asked where Tiger was. On the putting green I was assured. I’d made it! Was he starting on 1 or 10? No clue. Okay, grab some coffee, a couple of small danish and head for the 1st tee.
And low and behold, as I hit the cart path that led to the 1st tee, there was the great Tiger Woods, engaged in casual conversation in all his greatness. Joey stood close by the bag and better known media guys than me had drifted over to say hello. And that’s when I discovered my second incorrect assumption of the morning.
Normally, my basic media badge can get me pretty much wherever I want to go (except the locker room) without the additional Inside The Ropes sticker. You don’t need that until Thursday when everything gets tightened down. But all the guys were wearing their immediately recognizable green cloth Inside The Ropes bibs, their badges displayed in clear plastic in the middle of their chests. It’s an immediate signature of their status.
A quick trip back to the media center remedied that, but there was a sort of breathlessness about it even though I wasn’t breathing heavily. I pretty much wasn’t breathing at all. I knew where Tiger was!
In the minutes that I’d been gone, he’d hit a fairway wood and was fifty yards down the dew cut with his handful of close associates on his way to his flared shot into the right rough. But I’d caught up and all was right with the world!
What happened from there were a number of loose shots interspersed with the shots that keep him ever on our minds. Because it was such a small crowd and my Inside The Ropes, I pretty much had a front row seat. On the 3rd tee they had the tee blocks back so far, he could have caught his driver in the rope line on his backswing if he’d lost his balance. I was right there. You should have seen the orbit of the monster that followed.
He faked us out by only playing nine holes and then going right to the standup interview platform cobbled together for an outdoor media scrum:
Great to be back. Been a long time since I have been gone. The golf course right now is in fantastic shape. I mean, it’s springy. The balls are — it’s not quite flying, it’s not quite warm out yet, but the greens have definitely got a little spring to them. But they’re not overly quick, which is nice. You can see some pretty good scoring unless this weather comes in we’re supposed to get on Friday. Then it might be a little harder.
So what’s he been doing since we saw him in his Hero World Challenge at his former home at Isleworth?
Yeah. Well, I had to take a little bit of a break there for a while. That flu bug got me good for probably three weeks afterwards and I lost a lot more weight. I was finally able to start gaining weight again and started training.
I started practicing with Chris [Como]. We have done some really good work. It’s just continue the situation. We have a game plan we need to get to. Each stage, you know, we’re ahead of schedule on each stage of the game plan, and, you know, that’s a good sign.
Overall, I’m very pleased to go out there and hit shots. As you saw out there, I’m cranking up speed. Speed’s coming back up. It’s going to be a fun year.
Chipping, I was caught between techniques, between my old release pattern and body movement when I was working with Sean and then my new release pattern. We had to basically just hit thousands upon thousands upon thousands of chips and just get it out of there, and now it’s better.
So, of course, the media wanted to revisit his now famous hole-in-one at the 16th:
The hole-in-one ’97, I think I broke Fluff’s hand. I missed Omar [Uresti] or was it Rusty [Omar’s caddie and brother]? Omar? I missed his. And then old school, back in the day, raised the roof, you know, that was the thing in the day.
Then on top of that, just smelling and hearing the beer hit behind me on the tee box. It was a different, obviously a different setup then to see, turn around and see all this beer flying was crazy.
The more eerie part was when we were playing 17 and 18, everybody didn’t really care [about 16 anymore]. They were walking in, because they had seen what they wanted to see and 16 was empty. So we looked back on 16. You see all these beer cups everywhere on the tee box, and probably maybe an eighth of the people there, everyone walking around up here at the, Bird’s Nest, Crow’s Nest, they were all headed there. Some nest over there (laughter).
And let’s not forget the big rock a handful of guys in the gallery moved for him so that he wouldn’t have to take an unplayable lie (I thought the USGA changed the rule because of that but I couldn’t readily find it):
I thought it was lighter than it was. It says, you know, movable objects. I thought I could move it. Evidently it took about like five other dudes to do it.
And then here’s the thing about that that’s kind of funny is that they moved it the wrong way. They moved it in the direction which I didn’t want to have it moved. So that means I had to start the ball off to the right, because I hit the ball in the right bunker, so hitting up the left [would have been better]. But I wasn’t going to have them go back in there in the cactus and move it back the other way.
And, of course, all the world wanted to know about his front tooth that was knocked out while he was watching Lindsey’s ski race:
Yeah, that didn’t feel very good. Two different podiums in skiing. When they come down from the run, the top three are always there end of the run. After every race is completed, then they move that up on the hill so all the photographers can do their deal and champagne and whatever it is out there in the middle of the run.
Lindsey had finished up. I walked up to the top. I had my mask on so no one knew who I was, trying to blend in, because there is not a lot of brown dudes at ski races, okay? (Laughter.) Yeah, hey, we blend in, wouldn’t we? So that was the whole idea of why I wore the mask, and then I came up above.
I was looking down, and all the camera guys are below me on their knees or moving all around, trying to get a picture because she’s hugging people, saying congratulations to the other racers as they are coming down. Some already finished, some are there already in the changing area. Dude with a video camera on his shoulder, right in front of me, kneeling, stood up and turned and caught me square on the mouth.
He chipped that one, cracked the other one. And so then, you know, I’m trying to keep this thing so the blood is not all over the place, and luckily he hit the one I had the root canal on. That’s the one that chipped. But the other one had to be fixed, as well, because it had cracks all through it.
The flight home was made no more comfortable just because he was in his Gulfstream:
Oh, Jesus, the flight home was a joke. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink until he fixed them, put the temporaries on. I couldn’t have anything touch it. Even breathing hurt, because any kind of air over the nerve, the tooth that was still alive, was cracked.
I had to fly home and get it done first thing in the morning, which was nice.
As to the week, here are some things for us to watch for: the thing he thinks is coming along faster in his transition to Chris Como and the parts of his game that still need work:
My driving, for sure. My driving has come around a lot faster. I’m a lot longer than I thought I ever could be again. My speed is way back up, and that’s fun. I’m touching numbers that I did 15 years ago, so that’s cool [the good ones certainly looked like it].
What I think I need to work on a little bit here is getting the speed of these greens, because as I said, in your head, you assume [new] hard greens with a lot of spring to them are going to be fast, but they’re not fast. They spring but they putt slow.
So I need to do some work to try to overcome the mental hurdle to make sure I can hit the putts hard, even though I know coming into the greens I have to throw the ball straight up in the air, play for a big hop, chips, play for two big hops before the ball starts thinking about stopping.
Everybody say a little prayer for the barometric readings to drift higher and the winds to shift and chase the Friday rains away. It would be nice for all these great thoroughbreds to have a dry track.