PGA Championship 2019: Tiger Woods enjoys hero’s welcome in return to Bethpage Black
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Early Thursday morning at Bethpage State Park, as the sun peeked out just above the tree tops, a crowd had already starting gathering on the practice range. There are 156 players in the field at this 101st PGA Championship, but all eyes — or most of them, anyway — were on one. The one.
Whispers became murmurs, murmurs turned to conversations, as Tiger Woods hit drive after drive. His audience was fixated on his every move.
“It’s going to be a good day,” a fan said within earshot of Woods.
Thursday marked Woods’ first day of competitive golf since his triumphant final round at the Masters, and his first at Bethpage Black since 2012.
Fans around Bethpage have known for two years that the Black Course would be hosting the PGA Championship in May. They knew it would be a loaded field. They knew it would be loud. But not even the most optimistic of the bunch could have predicted this: a 43-year-old Woods entering as the betting favorite, in search of an encore to his improbable win at Augusta a month earlier. The seemingly interminable “Will Tiger ever win a major again?” questions had suddenly morphed into “How many more can he win?” — with the Bethpage PGA next in line.
Al Masonet and his son, Dylan, arrived at the 10th tee more than an hour before Woods’s starting time to stake out a prime spot, only to find the stands already packed once they got there.
“It’s Thursday morning at 8:30 and everyone’s out here,” said another spectator who was seeing Woods in person for the first time. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Patrons hugged every inch of the ropes, often lining several rows deep. Those who couldn’t see Woods re-positioned themselves, scoping out vantage points for upcoming shots. In the meantime, they kept their eyes glued to their phones for updates on the happenings hundred of yards away from them. Often, the noise level told the story anyway.
David Ledbetter — not to be mistaken for David Leadbetter — and three of his friends sported red “Make Sundays Great Again” shirts as they awaited Woods’ tee shot on 11. They flew in from Las Vegas to see their guy for the first time. Ledbetter admitted that he’s not sure he would’ve made the trip had Woods not won at Augusta.
“We were all waiting for that comeback,” he said, already seeking a refill on his drink.
“Maybe Tiger will hit us in the head,” joked one of Ledbetter’s friends. “That would be cool.”
Woods would go on to double-bogey the opening 10th hole, a sign of things to come on a day ultimately marked by on-course volatility. He finished the round with a 2-over 72, carding two double-bogeys and three bogeys to go along with three birdies and an eagle. He ended the day nine shots behind his playing partner, Brooks Koepka, who grabbed the tournament by the neck Thursday, setting a course record of 63.
Still, reverberations of Tiger echoed through the grounds all day. When he made birdie on 15, heads jolted all the way down the 16th fairway. When he made double-bogey on the par-3 17th, the silence was just as deafening. His 30-foot eagle putt on No. 4 had fans jumping and high-fiving all the way down the 5th hole. There are roars, and then there are Tiger roars. Even on a Thursday morning, the latter cannot be mistaken.
“It wasn’t until the Masters that [Bethpage] became the happening, the place to be,” said Harold Brandell, a tournament volunteer. “He has the rabid following because of the fact that he’s on a comeback — and we all, at this point, want him to succeed because of the comeback.”
Brandell was in attendance at Bethpage in 2002, when a different iteration of Tiger won comfortably by three. This version of Woods is not the 26-year-old juggernaut he was back then, but the sprawling gallery still served as a signal of his unifying magnetism, which is perhaps just as strong as ever.
“The entourage is incredible,” Brandell said, as he watched Woods walk down the 9th fairway, his final hole of the day. “Only Tiger.”