CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After following Tiger Woods and his group for the first two rounds of the Wells Fargo Championship, one shot will be hard to forget.
After a near perfect drive that found the center of the fairway on the short par-4 eighth at Quail Hollow, the multiple-time PGA Tour winner stood over his second shot, 35 yards from the hole. The large, rambunctious crowd fell silent. After a clean, smooth stroke, the ball bounced once on the front of the green and gained momentum, tracking directly toward the hole until it dropped for eagle. The roar from the crowd echoed throughout the course. A singular voice cried out louder than the rest:
"We love you, Webb!"
Following Tiger Woods inside the ropes for the first time, I wasn't sure what to expect. The huge galleries were a given, but which Tiger would I see? The refocused, re-energized Woods who appeared to be back when he dominated at Bay Hill, or the lost-looking Woods who finished tied for 40th at the Masters, his worst finish as a pro at Augusta National?
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping for Woods to provide some thrills, but instead it was another member of his group, Webb Simpson, who brought the most excitement to the days.
Tiger's rounds were mostly mundane, with the exception of one very bizarre moment.
Round one came and went with little to note -- a routine day with some hits and some misses. He struggled with the driver and his putter wasn't exactly kind, but aside from a flubbed chip on No. 1, it was an uneventful one-under-par 71.
Friday's round mostly followed suit. Some errant shots off the tee were followed by strong (and in the case of No. 3, great) recovery shots, which were followed by misread putts and a whole lot of pars. It looked like another dull day until Woods hit the lengthy par-5 fifth, where things quickly got weird.
After teeing off with a monstrous 3-wood off the deck, Woods was smack dab in the center of the fairway with 260 yards to the hole. What followed was chaos.
Tiger's approach shot was left from the get-go, heading way outside the ropes into the massive crowd and toward the tee boxes at No. 4. I had a good look at the ball off the club, so I made my way to the tip of the left fairway bunker, assuming the ball could not have progressed any farther than that. A marshal agreed. "It's somewhere over in there, maybe back a ways toward No. 4," he explained as we watched the large crowd bob up and down like unsteady swells. "This is our nightmare right here. That was honestly the worst shot I've seen approaching this green in 10 years."
As the search for Tiger's ball went on, I strolled to the back of the green. After some time, the crowd began to part as volunteers waved fans back on both sides. Deep in the trees, I could make out a green shirt and a ball dropping next to a tree, 65 yards away with a straight shot to the hole. "How the hell did his ball end up there?" murmured a cameraman positioned next to me.
Finally the story made its way through the crowd: some fans claimed to have seen the ball land, but when they ran to the spot, the ball was nowhere to be found. After hearing the story, Tour official Mark Russell decided that the ball must have been taken by a fan. Woods got a free drop with a clear path to the green.
"That's what we like to call 'Jordan Rules' down here," one fan said, referring to North Carolina's own Michael Jordan.
The excitement quickly died there, however. Woods missed another birdie opportunity on No. 6, short and right. There was more weirdness on the par-5 seventh, albeit briefly, as Tiger used the toe of his putter to chip away from the stone wall in front of the water hazard to the right of the green. Woods could not capitalize on the chances he had on the final two holes and ended his day at even par for the tournament. The bizarre break on No. 5 didn't matter; Woods was going home.
The bedlam on No. 5 was memorable, as was Tiger's missing the cut -- it was only his eighth missed cut in 267 PGA Tour events. But the thing I'll remember most from my first encounter with Woods will be the complete lack of aura surrounding the giant who redefined what it meant to be a superstar athlete. There was no fire in his eyes. No confidence.
The shots that made fans want to jump up and cheer instead came from Simpson, who, for 35 out of 36 holes, was much more interesting to watch than Woods.