The peculiar story of a man and his homemade Tiger Woods hat
DUBLIN, Ohio — It’s late Saturday morning in Dublin, Ohio, and a man wearing a large, homemade Tiger hat is stuck in a bush. The guy in the hat is looking for a better view of the action on the 3rd hole at Muirfield Village, but the brambled route he’s chosen is a dead end. He scrambles left, the only open route, into an area with an outhouse and a “Players Only” sign.
The security team moves in quickly. When you’re the Tiger Hat Guy, it’s hard to fly under the radar. But when you’re the Tiger Hat Guy, you’re not looking to fly under the radar, anyway.
You may not know the Tiger Hat Guy, but you’ve seen different iterations — think of them as his distant cousins — at nearly every golf tournament. Most frequently there was Rickie Fowler Orange Puma Guy and Tiger Onesie Guy. Onesie Guy shows up everywhere, even in June in Ohio, when dressing like a tiger means begging for heat stroke. Were this a big-time soccer match, an SEC football showdown, a huge basketball game, nobody would bat an eye. But in golf it’s far rarer for fans to dress like mad. What does it mean about golf, and about Tiger Woods, and about this individual, that he’s sporting this hat, norms be damned?
The security team ushers Tiger Hat Guy around the outhouse and back to the proper side of the ropes, where he scurries down the rough line in an effort to see more action. A roar cascades back through the fans — Woods has hit it close. He’s two-under through three holes, and the crowd is swelling. There’s nothing like a Tiger Woods charge on a Saturday morning to send the fans into a frenzy.
Members of the growing mob are screaming Woods’s name, more so with every birdie and every beer. They’re drinking heavily. They’re taking videos. “Tiger, the gold jacket’s yours! Shooter’s gonna choke!” yells one Happy Gilmore/Tiger Woods crossover fan. But Tiger Hat Guy does none of that. He winds his way nimbly through the crowd, drawing plenty of notice, accepting compliments, speaking softly, returning smiles. There are plenty of admirers; it’s truly an impressive hat.
“It’s called steel roll die, but let’s just say, for layman’s terms, ‘cookie-cutter.’ I made this giant cookie-cutter and you squeeze it between two giant pieces of hard plastic, and then you beat it with a sledgehammer. That compacts it more,” he says, explaining the construction. He also points out the swoosh-shaped stripes in the tiger.
Beneath the hat is a grey ponytail, and below that is a grey t-shirt, army-green corduroys and a pair of hiking shoes well-suited to a day trekking the course. Tiger Hat Guy’s real name is Robert J. Drlicka, and this isn’t his first rodeo. Heck, Tiger Woods isn’t even his first animal-themed golf hat. That came in 1986, when Drlicka debuted his Greg Norman “Shark” model. “Greg Norman was awesome to me,” Drlicka says. “He’d give me a clubhouse pass, and then I could get in there and eat that really good food.”
One of his most memorable hat moments, in fact, came wearing a shark lid. That was in 1996, when Drlicka got kicked out of the Masters. He describes it like a badge of honor. “I wouldn’t take my hat off. They didn’t like that,” he says. “I said geez, I paid all this good money for a ticket. I’m gonna wear my hat, that’s what I came here to do!
“They escorted me to the back and I said, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ They started talking about legal charges — I just decided to walk away and just bite my tongue.”
In 1997, Drlicka switched from Team Norman to Team Tiger, and he’s never looked back. He first made a Tiger hat that year, and got years’ worth of use out of it, but then it went dormant — until major No. 15.
“When Tiger won the Masters [in April], I said okay, I’ve gotta do this again because it’s so much fun. Because everybody’s cracking up and when people are happy it’s so much fun.”
How Drlicka got here, most literally, is by car. That’s a significant accomplishment, given the fact that we’re in central Ohio and he’s from Austin, Texas. It took him over 20 hours in his bright blue ’92 Plymouth, which he calls “Papa Smurf,” but it has been well worth it.
“When Tiger plays well, it just cheers me up,” he says. “It raises my adrenaline. That’s a rush. But mainly it’s just seeing people happy and laughing — that’s what fuels me to want to do it more.”
To pay the bills, Drlicka “fixes things,” he says, although he admits he often gets burnt out with working and moves on to something else. But his true passion is the pursuit of a comedy career.
“Right now I’m focusing on this character called Handy Dandy Hank, who’s a World Champion Handyman, and I do standup comedy while continuously jumping on a trampoline and continuously inspiring everybody to be a champion like he is,” he says. He’s optimistic. “I think it’s picking up,” he says of the character, which he has showcased in multiple Austin, Tex. theaters. “I could make some real money off of it.”
He seems to know how strange this all sounds. The trip to see Woods. The plans to drive to follow him again. (“Every one that he plays in this year,” he said. “I can’t drive to the British, though.”) The fact that he does so by himself. “I don’t…really tell anybody I do this,” he admits. “Most of the people I know don’t know anything about the golf world, so it doesn’t matter.”
Woods’ team is generally aware of some of his superfans, some of whom pop up regularly at events. But Drlicka says has no need to meet Woods; he’s here to enjoy the following. There’s something powerful about this strangeness. Most of the crowd here at Muirfield would easily pass through Augusta National’s in-good-taste test, as they are largely dressed in polo shirts, khaki shorts, sundresses, rompers and so on. That Drlicka is dressed differently, that he approaches it differently — maybe there’s something to it.
Golf’s worst characteristic has always been the way it pushes away what’s different. Well, here’s different, finding a place in the golf world. That’s powerful on its own.
That gets to the Why of it all, as does a small quote Sharpied onto his hat: “Never give up!”
Drlicka hasn’t had an easy life. He’s never quite fit into a desk job, or an obvious mold, he says. As different as he was from Tiger Woods, Drlicka has found some comfort in the way Woods battled back from pain and difficulty. “Sometimes you hit your lows, you struggle for a little while. And then you just have to get back up.
“That’s a great philosophy for all of us, right? Tiger’s such a great example of not quitting on his dreams. That’s a lot of inspiration for me to do this. He’s probably in pain, too, I would imagine. He’s telling his body to do things that it doesn’t want to do, and that is fantastic, that’s a lesson for all of us.”
When Drlicka disappears to head off to golf tournaments, to turn into the Tiger Hat Guy, he doesn’t tell his friends any specifics. “I just say I’m going to do some comedy. And really, I am, because thousands of people are laughing.”
Up ahead, the crowd roars again. Tiger Hat Guy gazes ahead, itching to check out the action. “Alright, I’m going to hit it,” he says. He’s got a tournament to track, after all, and Woods has a birdie putt.
As he moves off through the crowd, another fan taps him on the shoulder.
“Hey — I love your hat!”