Before the PGA season I wrote the below story. An abridged version ran in the Bay Street Bull. One week from the Tour Championship in East Lake I thought it's as a good a time as any to look at what fans were feeling not too many months ago. Also under the new FedEx format if anybody in the top five in points wins the tourney it doesn't matter if the overall leader (Tiger) finishes second they'll still win the 10 million bonus and get their name etched on the trophy.
Fans Remain Transfixed by Tiger's Tale. Can his Next Chapter Eclipse his last?
Tiger Woods remained the PGA's focal point despite missing six months last season.
After winning the U.S. Open on one good leg, Tiger underwent ACL surgery on his left knee and fans have been counting the days till his return ever since. Padraig Harrington may have won three of the last six majors—clutching his second straight Claret jug and adding a Wanamaker to his trophy collection during Tiger's leave of absence, but many golf fans would rather spend a Sunday afternoon watching Tiger floss his teeth than follow the smooth hitting yet unassuming Irishman walk 18 holes.
When Tiger is not in the mix in a major, many fans of the game simply tune out. The Tiger-free British Open at Birkdale garnered its lowest ratings in 17 years despite a compelling storyline in the resurgent and seemingly ageless Greg Norman. The 53-year-old Great White Shark gnashed away at the competition in what appeared to be a flashback to his heyday and went into the Sunday with the lead. And a Sergio Garcia/Paddy H duel on the back nine battle on the final day failed to ignite interest in the PGA Championships which mustered the most meager numbers seen for a major since Nielsen began tracking in 1972.
While the timing of Tiger's triumphant return to the tour remains murky as of this writing, bets are high on an early spring date, perhaps Doral in mid-March or maybe even a couple weeks before that. "I'm full bore with my practice sessions and have no restrictions," enthused Tiger in his blog in early February. Rehabbing and re-finding his form aren't the only items on TW's jam packed agenda. Tiger's family is now a foursome with the recent addition of Charlie Axel Woods. Until a public statement quells speculation, the chatter is that the name choice is a homage to Charlie Sifford, the tour's first African-American player. As for "Axel", since Tiger's not that big of a Guns n' Roses fan to name his son after the lead singer, word on the range is that his Stockholm born wife Elin made the decision. The Swedish moniker is fitting for the child of golf's chosen one, it means "father of peace." Pre-occupation and intense scrutiny with such minutiae in Tiger's day-to-day has been par for the course for quite some time.
Capturing the Tigergeist
A dozen years ago, nearly 16 million viewers (a record audience) marveled as Nick Faldo placed a green jacket on Tiger's shoulders. It marked the beginning of the PGA's brave new fist pumping epoch. But young Eldrick Woods had laid the groundwork long before his elysian first major victory. As a toddler Tiger schooled Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas Show, and by '89 the precocious golfer had been featured in segments on NBC, CBS, ESPN and ABC. Days after clinching his third consecutive U.S. Amateur Championships, the sole golfer to break par in a 156-player field, the seeds of Tigermania bloomed sky high in the form of a $40-million Nike endorsement contract, coupled a $20 million Titleist deal. In the ensuing years all you had to do was thumb through a magazine or turn on the set to notice Tiger the commercial icon, flashing a smile in inescapable advertisements for Accenture, Buick, Gillette, Gatorade, TLC Laser Eye Centers, Net Jets fractional aircraft ownership, and many others.
While Tiger's magnetic charisma engages over multiple media, nothing transfixes fans more than live sensory experience of watching him play golf. "The energy of the crowd never translates to TV," explains Bob Smiley, author of Follow the Roar: Tailing Tiger for All 604 Holes of His Most Spectacular Season. "I remember watching the replay of Tiger's tournament-winning putt at Bay Hill last year where he slammed his hat down, and the moment the crowd exploded the volume was turned down by some network sound guy. Otherwise, it might have blown a few speakers around the globe. And because of the energy of his fans, in person you can't help but be in awe of Tiger's focus. His ability to block out distractions is unmatched."
Jascha Baraness, a 30-year-old Toronto mixologist describes his first up close and personal encounter with Tiger during the 2000 Canadian Open at Glen Abbey with an almost spiritual zeal.
"I was lined up on the par three on the back 9. We had gotten there a couple of hours early, and there was no one waiting. We had front row seats right at the ropes," Baraness recalls.
"As soon as Tiger appeared on the tee, all of a sudden there were hundreds of photographers. Everywhere he went he was under a microscope. Still, he was able to block everything out, and focus on the shot. What I remember most about his contact, was the sound the ball made off the clubface. It was like a gun being fired and then the ball disappeared into the sky. He hit it higher than anyone had all day."
Joe Pare, 64, a Montreal insurance broker who saw Woods play at Royal Montreal in 1997 (a rare occasion where Woods actually missed the tournament's Friday cut), and again at the 2004 masters remembers his Tiger sightings vividly:
"Where one player would make an absolutely horrible shot and give up, Tiger would walk up to the result of his horrible shot and pull an absolute miracle off, curve a ball around a corner and over a bunch of trees and all of a sudden it would drop right beside the green."
Mike Weir had a lot of hype going into that 2004 Masters as the Sarnia, Ontario native won the tournament the previous year, becoming not only the first lefty to achieve the feat but the first Canadian to win a major tournament. "A couple of my associates and I walked with Mike Weir for awhile but then we switched to Tiger. "There was a lot of hope on Mike but we could tell from the first hole of the first day he was toast."
"We had a hard time getting anywhere close to Tiger," recollects Pare. "When we tried to follow him from hole to hole we'd be 10-15 people back easily. The only time we saw him really up close was when we followed the tactic of going five or six holes ahead and perching ourselves beside the green."
Tiger Stalking Tips
Just as merely playing in the same field as Tiger is no walk in the woods, attempting to watch him play is a similarly taxing exercise. "Most fans who want to watch Tiger will jump a few holes ahead, find a good spot and wait for him to come through" says Smiley. Then once he's bypassed them, they'll run ahead and repeat the process. Choosing to skip even a few holes here and there is a dicey proposition. Every time spectators pull the move they risk missing the most incredible shot of the tournament.
"The saddest golf fans I saw last year were the people waiting at the 14th tee on Saturday at the US Open after Tiger made his 60-foot eagle putt on 13" remembers Smiley who has come up with a foolproof method of catching each and every single on of Tiger's shots:
1)Don't stop for food. 2) Forget bathroom breaks. 3) Be willing to run between most shots and every hole. In the worst-case scenario—a 5th row view of everything is always better than a front row view of some things.
The burning question on TW stalkers minds right now is will they be treated to an even more spectacular season than in years past? Four shy of tying Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors mark, it would be incredible even by Tiger's lofty standards for him to score a major slam in 2009 and tie the Golden Bear in one scintillating swoop. The man whose masterful strokes can make sports clichés like "are you kidding me" ring true certainly has a shot. After Tigers sudden death victory over Rocco Mediate on the 19th playoff hole to win the U.S. Open he remarked that the win was "probably the best ever." But at 33 and still in his prime, Tiger's legions of followers are staunch believers the best is yet to come.
Slam dreams aside, Tiger has other epic projects on his to-do list. There's Al Ruwaya ("serenity") in Dubai, Tiger's first crack at course design on a spread of land that includes a golf academy and community center as well as 287 homes priced between $12-23 million that'll be ready for teeing off on by the end of the calendar year. Scheduled for completion in 2010 is his majestic Blue Ridge Mountain course, The Cliffs at High Carolina just outside of Ashville NC. And there is also Punta Brava in Mexico, a 6,835-yard jewel nestled between the Bay of Todos Santos and the Pacific Ocean with out of this world views of rugged rocky coastline. Brava aims to be finito sometime in 2011.
"We hope that what he did by playing at the US Open with a broken bone and a problem with the cartilage in his knee, we hope that doesn't take away his chances to win it (the record), but we don't know. We'll have to wait and see. It's either the most phenomenal feat ever in the game of golf or not a very smart thing if he played and he doesn't come back healthy."
Aside from that whole royal-we thing, which we think reads okay in print but is kind of weird when spoken aloud, Harmon may indeed have a point. Tiger's swing is brutal on his knee, and it could take him well over a year to recover fully from the surgery. And if he tries overcompensating, it's anybody's guess what happens next. (Then again, Harmon may still be bitter about getting canned by Tiger way back when. You make the call.)
So if Woods did indeed damage his knee beyond repair -- if he comes back and doesn't end up torching the field -- was it worthwhile to see one of the greatest tournaments in golf?
Copyright © Mike Dojc 2009