When some ambitious historian sits down to write The Rise and Fall of Western Civilization, I will volunteer to help out on the chapter on the "Tiger Woods Scandal." I'll talk about the day an estimated 350 media members from 120 news organizations showed up in a sleepy North Florida beach town and watched on a TV screen as a professional athlete stood in a building a quarter-mile away and apologized for his personal failings and talked about Buddhism as part of the world's strangest therapy program.
As with anything involving Tiger Woods, the day started early. Woods has been known to show up for practice rounds in the pre-dawn hours, so if you wanted a glimpse of him arriving at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., you set the alarm for ... "Ouch!" The Starbucks at the Sawgrass Marriott did $400 of business between 5:30 and 6 a.m. Not that those missed hours of sleep paid off for anyone. "Seen any black Cadillac Escalades yet?" I asked one photographer camped near the entrance around 8 a.m. "I saw one," he said with a laugh, "but it wasn't him."
One of the rumors going around was that Woods spent last night at Sawgrass, which is possible because the clubhouse is about the size of Versailles. We also heard that Michael Jordan was here, and even maybe Peyton Manning. Fred Couples too, but I might have accidentally started that one. (After all that, Notah Begay was a disappointment.) My favorite rumor was that a guy from TMZ was hiding in a trash can. I heard that one from Toni Fox, a local radio personality.
"This is crazy," Fox said. "Outside of a planned event like the Super Bowl, I've never seen anything like this. Even the BBC is here."
Fox and a friend left to try to find the TMZ guys, who undoubtedly were casing the clubhouse perimeter for any cracks. Security wasn't under "shoot to kill" orders, but it was pretty tight. I watched a sheriff run off a group of young videographers trying to sneak into the clubhouse. He told me that he'd stopped a few people trying to get on to the clubhouse grounds, and that the scene with media members and curiosity seekers was similar to what he'd see the Sunday of the Players Championship.
I wanted to talk to the videographers, but once the sheriff let them go, they jumped in their car and drove away. If I had gotten the chance to impart any advice to my young, intrepid brethren, it would have been this: If you're trying to gain access to a restricted area and might need police cooperation, don't dress like Eminem.
The mainstream media were generally happy to set up shop in the parking lot, which had enough satellite trucks to handle a Mars mission, and then talk to each other on television. It was easy for most of us to honor the Golf Writers Association of America's boycott of Woods's apology since we weren't invited in the first place. (The wire-service writers who were in the room with Woods were treated like witnesses to a plane crash in a cornfield. "You were there? What did you see?") And since the same sportswriters and broadcasters attend these events ("Look, it's Mike Tirico!"), the scene in the convention-center-sized ballroom where the media was encamped felt like a golf tournament minus the golf.
However, there was one surefire way to gain access to the clubhouse during Woods's statement: a tee time. Before it was announced that Woods would be speaking, the golf course had already booked about 80 tee times at the famous Stadium course, and if you had a tee time scheduled, the PGA Tour wasn't going to let Woods stop you from playing (especially at $375 a pop).
John Ralph, 43, of Naperville, Ill., booked his 11:30 a.m. tee time about six weeks ago as part of a trip with three college buddies.
"We were looking for a great place to play golf, but when I heard about Tiger's announcement I thought, Oh, no!" Ralph said. "I called the clubhouse, and they assured me it wouldn't be a problem."
Ralph said that if he ran into Woods in the clubhouse, he wouldn't say anything to him.
"I don't think that stuff is any of my business," Ralph said. "His personal life is his personal life. Sure, I'm still a fan of his."
Ralph's friend Ron Yoder, 43, of Normal, Ill., had a different take. A father of three, Yoder said he returned Woods's video game after details of the golfer's sordid private life surfaced.
"I wasn't trying to make a showy statement, but based on what we're seeing on the news, I didn't think that buying his game was the right message to send," Yoder said.
As Ralph and Yoder left for the Stadium course, one of their other friends joked to me, "You must be pretty desperate if you're interviewing those two."
Are you kidding me? They were the smartest guys I heard from all day.