Tiger Woods is no longer the No. 1 player in the world, but he’s still the one in Shanghai.
For most of the fans at the Sheshan International Golf Course outside China’s largest city, Tiger was the only reason to come and watch the HSBC Championship, and those fans got to see a different Tiger from the aloof, standoffish superstar they knew from his previous visits to China.
The first sign that things would be different this year appeared during Tiger’s press conference on Wednesday. The translator ignored some questions, but the interview was mostly open and Tiger was asked about his cool relationship with the media.
“You have been very cool the past few years, you always keep a distance from the media. Will you change this time? Will you have more smiles this year?” a Chinese reporter asked Tiger.
“I need to make more birdies,” Tiger said and smiled, dexterously avoiding the question.
Last year Tiger had a bad experience at the HSBC Championship. On the first day, he said a Chinese photographer interrupted him during his swing, and he criticized Chinese fans publicly. During his rounds, he was aloof and expressionless. He rarely responded to the crowds, regardless of how supportive they were. Tiger’s attitude was a world apart from Phil Mickelson, who always smiled and signed autographs every day after handing in his scorecard.
“Tiger’s fully defeated by Mickelson, from image to on-course performance,” a Chinese journalist said last year when Mickelson won the HSBC Championship.
But this year, the Chinese fans felt something different from Tiger. On Thursday, when Tiger heard the cheers and encouragement from the galleries after his first shot, he flashed his world-famous smile. Tiger saluted the crowd almost every time he sank a putt, even when he took a bogey on the first hole.
Tiger got off to a slow start Thursday, but the large crowds stayed with him and they were rewarded with one of those “only Tiger” shots. On the par-4 15th hole, Tiger’s drive ended up in the left rough, and from there he curved his pitch around some trees to the edge of the green where it kept rolling until it was 3 feet from the pin.
“The key was 15, getting a good break there, and then I made a pretty good save,” Tiger said after his round. “There were three little sprouting trees there. And I had a lie in which I had to actually miss it, so that meant I had to start the ball left of the left bunker, and then cut it all the way around.”
After the shot, a man shouted, “Great Tiger!” and Tiger smiled and nodded to him.
“He changed a lot this year,” another fan said.
A journalist who followed Tiger on Wednesday said, “He signed dozens of autographs, which was probably more than the total number of autographs he signed the last three times he was here.”
Chinese fans clearly still love Tiger, even after his scandal and the loss of his world No. 1 ranking.
“He’s wrong, but he’s been treated unfairly,” a Chinese fan named Li said. “The media and public must learn to separate private lives from the course.”
Without question, Mickelson was a fan favorite last year for his great play and his approachable manner, but on Thursday Tiger was still the main attraction. Thousands of fans lined the fairways and greens for Tiger’s group, many times more than the number of fans watching the pairing of Mickelson and current No. 1 player, Lee Westwood. Afterward Tiger said he appreciated the support.
“I think the fans have certainly become a lot more knowledgeable over the years,” Tiger said. “It’s always fun playing here. People are great. They are very warm, very receptive.”
Tiger made five birdies in his last 12 holes en route to a four-under 68 in the first round, and his even-par 72 on Friday left him five shots back of the leader, Francesco Molinari. He’s never won in Shanghai before, but this time he might not just win the tournament, he might win over the entire country.
Lucky Martin: On the par-3 12th hole, Martin Kaymer’s iron shot hit one of the gallery-rope stakes, went screaming toward the pin, hit it and stopped three feet away. But Kaymer missed the birdie putt.
Lost in Translation: After Japanese player Yuta Ikeda carded a five-under 67 Thursday afternoon, he entered the media center for an interview. Unable to find an English translator, Ikeda’s caddie played the part with limited effectiveness. After a Chinese-English-Japanese translation, journalists only got about 20 words from Ikeda. “It’s embarrassing for a WCG tournament,” a Chinese journalist said.
Child’s Play: In Wednesday’s pro-am, HSBC, the tournament’s main sponsor, invited the winners of this year’s HSBC Junior Championships to play with the stars on the par-3 17th hole. Guan Tianlang, 12, got the chance to play with Tiger Woods. Tiger used a 4-iron for the 212-yard hole and his ball stopped just 8 feet from the pin. Guan played from the pro tees and hit a 3-wood as Tiger watched. Guan hit a slight fade to 10 feet as the fans cheered wildly. “Impressive swing,” Tiger said. “He’s amazing.” Tiger signed a ball for Guan, then put his arm around Guan for photos. Guan is a famous talent in China. He started to learn golf at age 4 and he’s now a 2-handicap. He even won an adult amateur tournament earlier this year.