Even with my Inside The Ropes credential for Thursday’s first round in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the marquee group of Patrick Reed, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth just didn’t have enough pull to tempt me out of the media center. I had seen each of them play recently and I had seen everyone in the groups around them play.
I must be getting jaded. “What! You have a chance to see the great Tiger Woods in person and up close and you don’t take it? What are you thinking?”
And early on in his round, my decision seemed to have been vindicated. The same kind of loose shots I had seen from him in his Monday practice round showed up again today. Except this time, it counted. No more teeing up a second ball and moving down the fairway to second chances. He bogeyed 1…and 2…and double bogeyed 4, falling to 4-over in just four holes. Not the start of his dreams.
But he birdied right back on 5…and then gave it back with a bogey on 9. And 11 after shockingly wandering in the desert. Yikes! Tiger Woods 5-over par after just 11 holes! Where would this end? Would it ever end?
So now I’m getting a little smug that I was at least watching this in the media center rather in the jostling phalanx of avid fans. But unbeknownst to us, Tiger hadn’t given up by any stretch of the imagination.
Well, I got into the flow of the round, but it was just about trying to be so committed to the swing change and do it. I’m so much more shallow now than I used to be, and it’s hard sometimes. Believe me, I can get the club to the ground sometimes. I’m so shallow, I pick it a lot. It’s the trust in that. It’s just different. I struggled with it at the very beginning. I saw a lot of balls to the right.
Then I started to fix it on the back 9, but again, this is my second tournament in six months, so I just need tournament rounds like this where I can fight, fight through it, turn it around, grind through it, and make adjustments on the fly. Joey was on me all day today. He said, Don’t worry about getting your numbers perfect, because it’s not going to be that way yet. You’re still working through it.
And that flow involved out-driving the other two on the par-5 13th — the one where he had the boulder moved by the crowd — and then lacing his 226-yard approach shot to seven inches for a ho-hum, tap-in eagle.
That was the point at which I was moved to go catch him on the way in. I didn’t think I could get out to the new par-4 14th fast enough, but I could certainly beat them to the par-5 15th hole with its green surrounded by water and some bold enough to try. And who better to try than Tiger. There’s no question mark after that sentence because that was not a question; it was a statement of fact.
The first thing I noticed when I came out of the underground media center and into the light of a cloudy day, was that mobs of people had shown up since I did my weekly 8:32 AM radio spot with Uncle Buck on NBC Sports Radio, AM 1060 in Phoenix. It was difficult going to wend my way through sauntering clusters of patrons seemingly going nowhere with no real purpose. “Just walkin’ along taking it all in,” they’d probably explain if you asked them.
But I soon enough came upon the congealed masses between the 11th tee and the sheer walls of the 16th hole stadium green. Those walls are not the kind of thing that you ever see on a golf course. I’ll have to actually count them the next time I go by, but it’s three stories high and has the feel of being four. The ground level is the foundation with stairs to the sky boxes and tunnels that take you into the pit of glory or ignominy, depending on whether you hit the green or not. Rookie Daniel Berger described his glory on his last hole of the day where he made a birdie:
Yeah, gave it a little fist pump and heard some [his alma mater, Florida State] Seminole war chants going, which was pretty cool. No, I mean, honestly, that was probably one of the most nervous I have ever been, but I just took a couple of deep breaths and hit a nice shot in there.
So I moved my way by the wall to the area between the engulfed 16th tee and the 15th green, marveling all the while on the humanity hanging out on the outside balcony’s overlooking the green. From up there, not only could they see the green, they could also see back up the fairway to see who would be bold enough to go for the green in two. Turned out it was only Jordan Spieth. Both Tiger and Reed had to lay up, Tiger because of another shot into the desert.
Arriving at the green, the rope line was packed five deep and the small grandstand for the green was packed. I excused myself through the crowd and under the rope line and took up a spot all by myself on the grass in front of the grandstand. My head was level with the floor of the first row, so I wasn’t blocking anyone’s view if they knew I was there at all. The green end of the grandstand was haranguing the fairway end to sit down. Some where standing in their rows for a better view of Tiger’s desert adventure. Everybody wanted to see Tiger and it couldn’t have been soon enough for them.
Spieth flew his second shot into the left greenside bunker, and Tiger and Reed hit their layups into makeable range.
This is the point where I animate this story with the sound of humankind, all kinds of humankind and many of them shouting at the top of their lungs. Anything to get Tiger to turn his head in acknowledgement. It was all just short of frenzy as his greatness passed them. Most yelled encouragement, some louder, some congenial. Others, generally polite but chiding for not living up to his billing.
Spieth couldn’t get it up and down and made par. Tiger missed his birdie putt and Reed made his. Each accompanied by oohs and aahs and yeas!! All on top of the constant undercurrent of banter and conversations between the patrons. It sounds like a loud bee hive if they could talk.
While this was going on, I had been joined at my solitary position by the two dozen reporters and photographers who’d been following them all along. As the hole was being brought to a conclusion we were all eyeing the rope-line entrance to the green that I had ducked under. From that entrance/exit to the tunnel into the stadium is about 15 yards. But 15 yards of passersby humanity filling the gap, most wanted a glimpse of the great man.
So the volunteers stop the foot traffic with a roped off corridor through the crowd wide enough that the players can’t be easily touched. Normally, the etiquette for the media, official scorer and sign carrier is to wait until the the players have entered the corridor and then fall in behind; a hierarchical parade. But in this instance, with so many to get through the tunnel and settled before the players arrived ready to play on the tee, we all went quickly striding before them through the corridor, into the tunnel and out into the stadium at the tee.
Now that stadium seats almost 20,000 fans. It completely encircles the entire hole. And everyone in there knew by that time that Tiger was on the 15th green and would soon be coming out of the tunnel and onto the tee. We first in the media were the canaries in the coal mine. As we came flowing out and around the back of the tee, “He’s coming! Here he comes!” That burst into a huge roar as the greatest player in modern times finally was in their presence…or they in his. “Tiger!” “Way to go, Tiger!” “Come onnn, Tiger!” “Hey Eldrick!” “Tiger!!” All of that settling into a cacophony of excited, sometimes drunken, conversations.
In prior years, it would all settle to just about complete silence as each player hit his tee shot. Not anymore. The cocktail conversations in the tops of the sky boxes prattles on, settling for no one, even the great Tiger Woods.
Reed’s birdie won him the tee, he hit it to 8 feet to the roaring delight of the fans. Tiger next and he was awarded two balks for the two idiots trying to attract attention to themselves. Or probably more like to demonstrate that they could inject themselves into the consciousness of such greatness sufficient to pay notice to them. Who knows what people like that think or how much they had to drink. The third time was the charm and Tiger launched a high one that raised loud cheers and a ruckus…and a smattering of boos when it landed 29 feet away, even though it should have been exempt; it was on the green! Some people don’t understand the conventions. Spieth’s landed inside of Tiger’s.
The walk from the tee up to the green was more rollicking cheers and jibes, bellowing and encouragement, almost all at Tiger. It was loud the whole way to the green. People waving, shouting, anything that he might see or hear.
He got mildly booed again for leaving his birdie putt short and wide. Spieth sank his and so did Reed.
Out of the tunnel and onto the 17th tee, I have never seen so many people on that hole, 15 deep on the left hill behind the stadium, a veritable still parade on the service road to the right all the way to the hospitality boxes at the green — which were packed too — all clamoring for a look at the great Tiger Woods. Massive cheers and applause as he arrived again and shouts of encouragement as the three of them strode to the green; the entire way. The only person who managed to get him to turn his head and smile was the guy who forcefully bellowed, “Thanks for coming back, Tiger!!”
And it was that way on 18 as well, appreciative applause and encouragement from throngs, tee to green.
All of this teeming humanity is enveloping because it’s not just their bodies, it’s their emanating presence. You walk by the wall of people, mostly not looking at them because you’re not the show, the players are. Sometimes someone will catch your eye, they do watch you as you go by. And I smile or nod at them. More than that would be presumptuous. And when I do, it’s almost always to make sure that when they went to the trouble to get to the spectacle of a huge golf tournament, somebody noticed them in an appreciative way. And it’s also to acknowledge how their energy energized me.
It’s quite a spectacle — and privilege — being able to get inside Tiger’s energy bubble. And one I don’t take lightly.