Inside the ropes with Tiger Woods: a heckler, a birdie and more

Inside the ropes with Tiger Woods: a heckler, a birdie and more

Tiger Woods showed flashes of his old form while firing an opening-round 71.
John Biever/SI

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — When the PGA Championship announced the groups for the first two rounds at Whistling Straits, one tee time stood out like a vegan at Usinger’s sausage factory — Y.E. Yang, Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods at 8:20 a.m.

That’s Yang, the defending champ who vanquished Tiger at this event in 2009; Vijay, the mercurial loner, former Tiger trash-talker, and champion when the PGA came here in 2004; and Woods, who at this point may as well be sponsored by Ringling Brothers. Yes, this group has juice. After a three-hour fog delay, I stepped inside the ropes to follow the threesome over, around and through the dunes for 18 holes. Here’s what I saw.

• Great scene at the 10th tee, the group’s opening hole of the day. Vijay enters first, followed by Tiger, who draws a huge ovation. Singh and Woods lean on their bags near the tee and have an easy chat, a few laughs, then shake hands. No sign of animosity here at all. Moments later Yang enters, and the crowd gives him hearty applause, apparently choosing to ignore his choice of purple pants. Tiger, incidentally, is in a white shirt and black pants. Back to basics. Each player finds the fairway with his tee shot, and we’re off.

• All three are looking at birdie putts to start the round when Vijay turns and snaps at a group of photographers, “No cameras, guys.” It took all of two shots before Singh flashed his surly side. Vijay and Yang miss their putts, but Tiger, putting last, drains his. The crowd roars.

• Teeing off with honors, Woods bombs, and I mean bombs one down the left side of the fairway. When I get to the spot near his ball, a scorekeeper deems the drive to be 357 yards.

• An early potential omen: When Tiger arrives at the 357-yard ball, a small bird lands and hops around the orb, and the world’s No. 1 golfer. Tiger stares quizzically and the bird, would you believe it, stares back. After a long moment it finally bounces away. Will Tiger see any more birdies today? In case you were wondering, I failed to corner the bird for an interview.

• The birdie omen looks good for now as Tiger drills his approach on the par 5 to the left fringe, lags to 10 feet then buries the putt. No emotion out of TW yet, but he’s two under through two.

• Tiger and caddie Steve Williams have a long chat on the tee at the par-3 12th. Tiger is rehearsing swing after swing. He pures it and stares down the shot, only to watch it land in the rough behind the green. Standing on the tee, Tiger glares at it for a long time, walks to his bag and jams the offending iron back into it. No words for Stevie. He goes on to make a slick up-and-down to save par.

• Woods drills a 10-footer for birdie at 13 and he’s three under through four holes. Wonder if anyone is noticing — you know, other than the 15,000 or so folks who ring every fairway and green hoping for a glimpse of the action.

• The 14th tee is tucked in one of the quieter corners of the course, and this is where Woods is heckled for the first time. With all three players waiting on the tee, a patron hollers, “Hey, Tiger, when’s the after-party?” Woods doesn’t blink, and neither do Yang or Singh, but there’s no way they didn’t hear it. A marshal floats near the ropes to see if the offender might show himself. No luck. Tiger promptly hits his first poor tee shot of the day, a pull-hook into a fairway bunker. As the group leaves the tee, the heckler takes one more shot. “Hey Tiger, can I be your wingman?” The marshals again fail to ID the culprit. Tiger hits a nice shot out of the fairway bunker and salvages a two-putt par.

• The 15th was the toughest hole at the 2004 PGA, and all three players miss the fairway. Tiger swats his golf bag with his wedge after seeing his lie in the left rough. He punches out. Vijay and Yang make a mess of things, too. Bogeys for everybody. Tiger drops to two under.

• Tiger’s 40-foot putt for eagle at the par-5 16th slams into the back of the cup, pops up into the air, and runs another five feet past. The crowd howls. Woods misses the comebacker and settles for a disappointing par.

• I get a good spot near the tee at the 223-yard, par-3 17th and listen as Tiger and Steve plot strategy.

Tiger: What did we hit here the other day?

Williams: Two. You want to try it again?

Tiger: Yeah.

I didn’t say it would be Scorsese-level dialogue, did I? Tiger pushes the 2-iron right, and from the tee it looks like trouble. But Woods tells Stevie, “It should be all right,” while handing him the iron. Sure enough, the ball ends up on the right fringe, 40 feet away from the cup. Woods’s ensuing birdie attempt stops two rotations short of the hole. His putting has been solid.

• Tiger finds the first cut on the right side of the 18th fairway, perhaps the most intimidating tee shot on a course loaded with intimidating tee shots. While waiting for the players to clear in front of him, Woods pulls an iron and rattles off practice swings, one after another. I count 16. I’ve never seen him take this many in a row. His 17th swing connects with his golf ball, and the shot is a beauty. His 20-footer for birdie burns the edge. Another near miss. Another par.

• Upon arriving at Whistling Straits, press members were given pedometers as part of a promotion to count their steps to promote healthy living. (Or, was it a direct challenge for media members to stand and walk.) Anyway, my colleague David Dusek was right: walking this course is no joke. I check my pedometer for the first time after I make the turn to No. 1 and learn that so far I’ve completed 7,953 steps. Tiger has completed 34 shots and sits two under. Yang is one over, Singh two over.

• Tiger hits another hook off the tee at the par-5 second, and his ball settles a few inches short of the face of the bunker. He’s not happy when he arrives at the scene, and snatches a wedge out of his bag. The ball is so close to the bunker wall, I think he knows what’s coming. With a mighty lash, he extricates the ball, but slams the club into the side of the bunker on his follow-through. He shakes his left wrist for several moments. That one hurt. Walking to his next shot, head down, he uncorks a loud F-bomb. Spectators quietly watch him slump down the fairway. Three messy shots later he’s in with bogey to fall to one under.

• Woods narrowly misses birdie putts on three and four, and then makes his worst swing of the day on the tee at the par-5 fifth. The club comes out of his hands on the follow-through, and it’s hard to say from my vantage point if he tossed the club or if it slipped. Either way, the drive is a terrible hook, and it splashes down in a hazard far left of the fairway. He rallies to hit a smooth wedge and hole a five-footer to save par.

• Yang’s approach on the par-4 sixth crashes squarely into the flagstick and settles just a few inches away from the hole, the shot of the day for this threesome. Tiger and Vijay smile with the defending champ on their walk up to the green. Yang taps in for a birdie and Woods narrowly misses another birdie putt.

• There’s a backup on the seventh tee and Yang and Woods sit on a bench while Singh flops onto the grass nearby. Yang leads the discussion, and whatever it is, it must be good because Tiger and Vijay are cracking up. The group is having a good time today. The seventh is the toughest par 3 on the course, with Lake Michigan on the right and the pin tucked into the far right side of the green, it’s not one the players want to mess with. The fun ends as all three players miss the green left, and all make bogeys.

• Tiger makes a two-putt par on the eighth and breaks into a wide grin while walking to the ninth. The group has another boisterous chat on the tee. Woods closes with a birdie and a thunderous roar from the gallery. Other than the incident on the 14th hole, the crowd has been behind him all day. Woods finishes with a one-under 71. Yang also birdies the final hole and finishes at even par. Singh makes a par and signs for a 73. My final count on the pedometer is a robust 13,330. A solid afternoon’s work by everyone.

It’s too early to say if Tiger will contend for the title this week, but there are signs that his round was no fluke. Most of his errors off the tee went left, which is much more encouraging than the dreaded two-way miss. He was solid on the greens, and the putts that didn’t drop scared the hole. Tiger seemed optimistic after the round.

“I felt so much more comfortable over it,” he said of his putting. “I got my lines back. I got everything lined up where I could release the blade. Toe is moving again, which is great, something I like to feel. It felt good.”

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