A day with Tiger

Posted: August 27, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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I saw the first 67 shots Tiger Woods hit in the final round of The Barclays on Sunday in Jersey City, but I only saw the end result of his 68th. When Woods struck a lengthy putt for birdie that would have put him in a playoff with Steve Williams — with Adam Scott along for the ride — I stood near the 18th green with a million or so fellow fans. I couldn’t actually see Tiger. Instead, as I stood about 25 deep, I found a small opening through various heads, shoulders and baseball caps that provided a perfect view of the cup but nothing else. On tip-toes I waited for Tiger to strike the putt, waiting for the crowd to tell me when the ball was on its way. When the roars started I jumped up and down several times because everyone in front of me did the same thing, all of us looking something like the Cameron Crazies at the start of a game against North Carolina.

It was a long putt so it took a long time for the ball to reach the cup. I saw it about two inches before it stopped about two inches from the hole. And that was the end of Tiger’s tournament. And it was the end of my first time seeing him play in person. I think I had a more enjoyable Sunday.

My below-average photography skills on full display. This is the 18th, before the madness. But hey, I got the Empire State Building and One World Trade in the shot.

My below-average photography skills on full display. This is the 18th, before the madness. But hey, I got the Empire State Building (squint) and One World Trade in the shot.

Sunday marked the first time I attended an actual PGA round. In 1991 I went to a U.S. Open practice round at Hazeltine with my parents. No, the Barclays is not a major and who knows how much the players actually care about the event. Still, it’s a chance to put a lot of money in off-shore accounts and the goofy playoff system with its strange scoring has at least added some excitement to the post-majors season.

So it gave me a chance to see the final round of a tournament, to watch the flameouts and the rallies. I’d finally get to stand on the tee box and see the swings I’ve seen so often on TV and I’d stand nearby as the towering approaches landed softly on the greens. I’d watch them read the putts and miss the putts and watch them point at something on the green that, damn it, if that hadn’t been there the ball would have fallen.

Mostly it gave me a chance to watch Tiger. When Tiger made his way into the penultimate Sunday pairing, it made it easy to pull off my strategy for the day. I’d get there early, spend a few hours at one hole so I could see a parade of golfers and then follow Tiger for his entire round, which started at 1:40. I might never see Tiger play in person again and I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity. As an unapologetic Tiger fanboy — he’ll get 19 majors, stop yelling at him for swearing, his personal life is his business, etc. (it’s not always easy with the talking points but remember, I’m also a Kobe fan so have experience pulling for folks who aren’t sympathetic) — it was an easy choice. But even if I wasn’t pulling for him, how often do you get to see perhaps the best ever — or at least the second-best ever — in any sport or profession up close for four and a half hours?

From 10 a.m. until 1 in the afternoon I sat greenside at the par 3 second hole. About 20 groups wandered through, including eventual winner Adam Scott, who was still six shots back at that stage. I’d never heard of many of the players — your Graham DeLaet’s and Jason Kokrak’s. But plenty of the big names played the hole during that time, from Phil Mickelson — who nearly drained a lengthy birdie putt and then gave his aw-shucks grin and a fist-bump to an eager elderly man — to Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy, with the Spaniard presumably offering his playing partner advice on dating female tennis stars.

One major thing I noticed up close:  A lot of pro golfers are tiny men. Guys I saw like Ryan Palmer (5-11, 175 pounds), Luke Donald (5-9, 160), Charl Schwartzel (5-11, 146) and Camillo Villegas (5-9, 161) have the builds of people used to having sand kicked in their faces instead of raked in their wake. It looks like their caddies could scoop them up and gently carry them between holes, if that wasn’t a violation of one of the more arcane golf rules. It was refreshing to bump into someone like the rotund Kevin Stadler, a throwback to a different era and mustard-stained shirts.

The lesser-known players really do operate in a different world, as is obvious when you see guys with handguns offering protection while walking with Phil, Rory and Tiger. Beyond that, for the regular players a golf clap was as quiet and polite as a stereotypical one, with a handful of people by the green offering up a clap, but rarely claps. Golfers master that mouthed, apparently sheepish “Thank you,” as they pick up the ball. When they came off the green after a par or bogey, they all looked chagrined, as if they’d just been told distressing tax news at weekly Bible study.

The crowds expanded by the green as the day progressed and finally I left to go watch Tiger at the first. So what’s it like following Tiger? This old SportsCenter commercial remains accurate.

When you’re around that many people for 18 holes, you hear a bit of everything. As the alcohol flows, you start to realize with horror that “get in the hole” actually represents golf fan wit at its finest, as Internet comments take on human, sunburned form. Still, those people do represent a small portion of the overall mob. On the 17th hole, a large group of people parted to let a 10-year-old boy get up close to watch Tiger’s second shot.

Announcers often talk about the difficulty of playing with Tiger. That doesn’t have anything to do with intimidation — not usually, anyway. On Sunday Tiger was paired with Kevin Chappell, who held the lead as he made the turn before collapsing down the stretch. Poor Chappell. The moment Tiger hits a shot on the tee, from the fairway or on the green, hundreds of fans leave the area, streaming to the next area and leaving his playing partner behind. The marshals do their best to keep people from moving but it’s a losing cause. It must be especially difficult during the putts.

My plan to follow involved getting close on a few tee shots but otherwise hanging in the middle of the fairway so I could have a great view of the towering approach shots. I stayed near the tee for a few shots, getting a close look at Tiger’s violent swing. The problem was the angle; I’d lose the ball about two seconds after it rocketed away. On the seventh hole, as I watched Tiger tee off, I stood off the fairway and heard people shouting that his shot had gone way left. I put my hands to my head and the ball flew a few yards ahead of me. That led to a common scene that remains bizarre: Dozens of people sprinting to the ball and standing inches from it while a marshal wanders over. If an asteroid fell in the middle of Main Street during Janesville’s Hay Daze, the people wouldn’t be this amazed by a small round object. I didn’t run up but I was equally fascinated. I stood a few feet away as Tiger consulted with caddie Joe Lacava, ignoring the cries of encouragement, somehow blocking out a situation that would be hell for anyone who’s convinced people are always watching them. Tiger put his approach close to the pin though he missed the birdie putt. Unfortunately for my chance at worldwide fame, CBS’ coverage picked up on the 8th hole.

I saw the whole Tiger arsenal: The red shirt; a grinding par that led to one of the only fist pumps; an angry swipe of the club after a terrible approach shot; crouching down to read a putt, hands on his hat, creating tunnel vision; the little shuffle he does with both feet right before he hits a putt.

And, of course, a horrific second shot on a par-5, a killer bogey…and a dramatic rally. When his second shot on the 13th went a hundred yards off target and ended up in green gunk, I stood on a hill as Tiger and a cast of hundreds looked for it. Without the TV replays, I had no idea where the ball ended up. No one reacted at the green when he took his shot, only to him falling on his knees. Tiger asked everyone if they’d seen a ball and I thought they were looking too far, didn’t think there was anyway it had flown all that way.

That hole proved to be his downfall, only the third time he’d ever bogeyed a par-5 in the Fed Ex playoffs. A two-shot swing from what he’d be expected to get. More importantly…the back. The only other time I’ve seen someone fall to their knees from back pain on a golf course was my dad in the early 90s, at the Westbrook course. If he follows my dad’s middle-aged athletic history, Tiger’s next back injury will occur when he gets blocked by the rim while trying to dunk on a 9-foot hoop at the Fulda playground.

When Tiger missed another par putt on 15 to fall three shots back it felt over, but my irrational belief in his ability to win 18 majors carried over to an irrational belief he could drill three straight birdies. Of course he didn’t, missing a third straight by a single rotation. After an easy birdie at 16, Tiger drilled a perfect approach on 17 and hit the clutch putt, acknowledging the roars with a little point.

When everyone finally made it to 18 — a hobbled Tiger, a deflated Chappel, the drunken masses — an otherwise mundane tournament had, at least for a moment, transformed into something bigger, thanks to all of Tiger’s history. An 80th victory was again possible, a playoff with Scott in the works.

I wanted that last putt to drop, but the overall experience was hardly damaged. It was thrilling watching all the action from the par-3 second, even the guys I wouldn’t recognize without the help of a crowd-sourced online encyclopedia.

And having the chance to watch Tiger goes in the personal sports vault, earning a spot with, among other memories, the two times I got to watch Magic Johnson in person, once in a meaningless preseason game that meant everything to me as a 9-year-old and again in 1996, near the end of his comeback. Both times I got to watch Magic, the greatest passer ever, make passes that only he can make. I can still picture them in my head. On Sunday I saw Tiger hit shots that others can make but ones no player’s ever made as often.

Unless the back becomes a longterm issue, this isn’t a tournament Tiger will really remember in 20 years. He probably erased most of the details a few moments after the private jet made it into the air. A forgettable day for him, an unforgettable one for me.

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Comments
  1. Rich Jensen says:

    “I’d lose the ball about two seconds after it rocketed away.”

    I’m always impressed by the cameramen at golf tournaments. Tracking that ball–especially on an overcast day–seems to be a pretty amazing feat.

  2. shawnfury says:

    Don’t ask why I remember this. When you went to OK to cover that, I put something in the Forum’s “Sideline,” about you going to it and had a line about you going there to see if Tiger could make the cut. He’d won four straight majors, had never missed a cut in a major, overwhelming favorite, etc. Little Sideline joke/humor. Then…he almost missed the cut, had to fight like hell to make it on Friday.

    • cheesewitt says:

      Great post — and great link on the Tiger commercial. I, too, remember when TV headed for the Open. That’s when I knew he was headed for the big time. 😉 The Sideline. Ugh. Memories.

  3. […] And in August I saw Tiger play in person for the first time. It lived up to my expectations, even if his 72nd-hole magic didn’t. […]

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