ST. LOUIS — At 9:45 a.m. Thursday, the front nine of Bellerive Country Club was surprisingly quiet. That’s because everyone else was in the woods left of 15, trudging through leaves, sticks, weeds and roots on uneven, sloping ground, trying to get a view of Tiger Woods, who had missed badly and was trying to limit the damage.
Woods hit a beautiful recovery shot and dropped in a 15-footer for an unlikely par that thrilled his St. Louis faithful at this 100th PGA Championship.
“Let’s go, Tiger!”
“Come on, Tiger! We believe in you!”
“Here we go now, Ti-ger!”
Bellerive is not accustomed to these types of huge crowds, but Woods, of course, is. Whatever the course, whatever the event, hoards of spectators scurry about the grounds to get the best sightline of Woods as possible. Everyone always wants to be heard — and they go out of their way to be heard.
Take the 72nd hole of the British Open, when a fan yelped during Woods’s tee shot, for example.
“I’ve had things like that happen a lot in my career with people who just tried to time it,” Woods said afterward. “Either that, or they’re a little bit over-served. They tipped back a few, and it’s late in the day. Unfortunately, that’s part of what we have to deal with in today’s game. People are trying to yell out things to try to be on TV or be in social media or whatever it may be. That was too close to the game of play.”
Woods was ticked, and can you blame him? He’s renowned for hitting the brakes mid-swing when a scream or yell pierces the air, but that’s not always feasible. At a certain point, even Woods’s swing crosses the point of no return.
“You can’t stop instantaneously,” says Dr. Joseph Parent, a mental coach and the author of Zen Golf. “There is a lag time between hearing the sound and giving his muscles the instruction to stop. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect him through impact as he hears the sound as he’s coming down.
“Our reaction to hearing a surprising sound is often to freeze or turn out attention to that sound. If you are a right-handed golfer and the sound is directly to your right, behind the ball, and you want to swing left to the target, your body and brain are going opposite directions — and it doesn’t end well.”
Woods faces a unique set of challenges when he puts a peg in the ground. No other player — not Rory, not JT, not even Phil — deal with the same level of pandemonium around their groups. When Tiger’s in town, the rest of the field takes a back seat. Ask McIlroy, who in the first two rounds is grouped with Woods and Justin Thomas.
“You certainly get thrown at the deep end straight away in a group like that I think,” McIlroy said. “Even as Justin won last week, and you just have to accept that 75 percent of the people that are out there watching are watching one guy in that group and that’s it. As long as you know that and you’re going to expect a little bit of movement — and there’s a lot that goes on around a group that involves Tiger — you just have to be in the right place mentally to accept it and go with it.”
At the Hero World Challenge in December — granted a sparsely attended Silly Season event in the Bahamas — Woods’s return was the story. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson was there, too, playing in virtual solitude. Not a single spectator followed his group during a period of one of his weekend rounds.
Then there’s the inside-the-ropes media circus: Woods is to reporters and photographers what the Pied Piper was to the kids of Hamelin. Spectators are often as impressed with the parade of pencils following him as they are with the man himself. (They are loyal, too. And sometimes testy. On Thursday, a woman on the 17th hole said, “Y’all better sit down. We been here all day.” She had no problem repeating herself.)
Earlier this season at the Genesis Open, McIlroy said the fan craziness actually costs Woods strokes.
“I swear, playing in front of all that, he gives up half a shot a day on the field,” he said. “Like, it’s two shots a tournament he has to give to the field because of all that that goes on around. So, whether that calms down the more he plays and it doesn’t become such a novelty that he’s back out playing again, because it’s tiring. I need a couple Advil. I’ve got a headache after all that.”
Woods has admitted as much, saying it costs him “a lot” of shots over the years and even a few tournaments.
“All it takes is one shot on a Thursday that you lose a tournament by a shot on Sunday,” he said. “What people don’t realize, it’s not just something that happens on Sunday afternoon, this is cumulative and it’s par for the course. I’ve dealt with it for a very long time.”
Woods, however, was trained for this; at least part of it. When he was a kid, his dad, Earl, would rattle coins or yell unsavory words in Tiger’s backswing during range sessions.
“He’s been trained not to listen,” Parent says. “That’s why when fans call him and say sign this and sign that, it looks like he’s ignoring them, but he trained himself to block it out.”
The walk from the 17th green to the 18th tee at Bellerive goes along the edge of the property. It’s about 75 yards uphill, through mulch and soggy grass. Fans lined the left side on Thursday as Woods strolled by. They yelled and screamed trying to get his attention.
One man, probably in his 50s, looked ecstatic as he snapped a photo of the 14-time major champ. “Well,” he said to no one in particular, “that took care of that I guess. Time to go home everybody!”
When Woods emerged from the funnel and stood on the 18th green, the expanse of spectators watching was stunning. Both sides shuffled in close. Fans from the nearby 17th grandstands peered over the railing, their backs to the green and incoming approach shots. Up ahead the packed bleachers hummed.
Woods marched on.