CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Television cameras on tripods encircled the first tee at 7:30 on a clear, crisp, beautiful morning. It looked like some sort of police stakeout. The assembled posse of news gatherers included writers from several New York newspapers, national magazines and legitimate websites. Outside the gallery ropes, several hundred enthusiastic spectators (a number that grew steadily as the morning wore on) waited anxiously to catch a glimpse.
It would’ve been a normal Thursday morning at any number of PGA Tour stops, but this was Wednesday morning at the Quail Hollow Championship. This was pro-am day and this media crush, necessitating two tour media officials just to orchestrate the opening tee shots, was not normal.
It was all about the return of Tiger Woods. Didn’t he already come back and play in the Masters, you ask? Yes. But this was his first pro-am appearance since The Scandal, being played the day before his first non-major championship appearance since The Scandal, being played just hours before his first non-Augusta press conference since The Scandal. (His last pro-am appearance, for the record, was at the HSBC Champions event in Singapore last November.) So it was a huge media event. It would have to be to get writers from the big news organizations up early enough to catch the 7 o’clock media shuttle.
Tiger wore light gray slacks, a dark gray sweater over a yellow shirt, a white cap and white shoes. He also sported a goatee, which may or may not still be there Thursday when he begins the tournament.
The starter at the first tee was a distinguished Southern gentleman wearing a sport coat. His diction was as pleasant as his regional accent. “Today’s format will be one professional and two ama-toors,” he announced. “From Winda-mere, Florida, please welcome Tiguh Woods.”
Woods got a hearty round of applause and a few whoops. He swung and made his familiar one-hand-on-the-club follow-through, which meant he hated the shot. It was well right and deep into the treeline. His lucky amateur partners didn’t fare so well off the tee, either. Kurt Kimball pushed one into the right rough, almost into the trees, while Jim Rathburn, a tall lefty, pushed his tee ball into the left trees.
Woods flew a high wedge shot over the trees and onto the front of the green and two-putted for a par. “I guess he had an opening in those trees,” said one older fan whose bucket hat was decorated with fishing lures. “Yeah, it was an easy shot,” replied his heavyset buddy. After a pause, they both chuckled.
“He makes ’em all look easy, don’t he?” said fishing-lure hat.
It was a media circus. Woods handed a golf ball to a youngster en route to the second tee and a handful of writers swarmed around the kid, who couldn’t have been more than 5, to get his name and quotes from him and his father.
Security was pretty heavy, too. There were two police officers riding Segway vehicles, and they were joined by another officer pedaling a mountain bike. The guy on the bike had to be ticked off that his buddies got the Segways and he had to do hard labor. Where do you go to file a union grievance?
Anyway, Tiger’s long game didn’t look sharp on his opening nine but his short game did. He missed the green short and left at the downhill par-3 second but expertly pitched it to a foot. Another shot that wasn’t nearly as easy as he made it look. He hit into a greenside bunker at the par-3 sixth and splashed that shot out to four inches, drawing “oohs!” from a fairly subdued crowd.
Woods lost several shots into the trees right. At the third hole, he had to pitch out of the trees back toward the fairway.
He joked about his play later when he met with the media. Asked what caused those shots to go to the right, Woods answered, “The lefts.” When he was warming up, he said, he was hitting shots left. Once he got to the course, he tried to correct it.
Asked about his play in the pro-am, he admitted, “It was scratchy. Some drives were scratchy, some irons were scratchy, I hit some bad chips and some bad putts. Somehow I still managed to shoot under par, though.”
Overall, he said he was glad to be at Quail Hollow, that the galleries here have always treated him well. Asked if this week feels normal, like tournament golf used to feel, he grinned and said, “This feels a heck of a lot more normal than the Masters.”
Woods did manage two birdies on the front side despite some of those errant shots. He got a drive in play at the par-5 seventh hole, then hit a perfectly played cut iron shot that landed on the left edge of the green and spun right down the slope, ending up below the hole. The eagle putt lipped out.
At the ninth, he was in the right rough again and played an approach that ended up a few feet short of the front of the green. He had a pretty easy, straightforward chip from 25 feet and put it in the cup, drawing the first real reaction from the gallery.
By the time he made the turn at 9:15, fans were streaming steadily onto the grounds and his gallery on the 10th hole was easily three times bigger than it was on No. 1. By the way, this is one of the reasons players love to come to the Quail Hollow Championship. The pro-am portion features only two amateurs while most events have pro-am teams with three or four. With two, it’s more personal and obviously a lot faster. Nowhere else do the pro-am teams play the first nine in an hour and 45 minutes, the way Woods and his partners did.
Woods did seem loose and relaxed on the course in the pro-am format and did a lot of smiling and laughing. As he walked to the fifth tee, several fans offered comments of encouragement and he said, “Thanks,” and another asked him to sign a flag and he smiled and said, “After the round, no problem.”
This would be in contrast to his usual head-down demeanor where he traditionally has had no interaction with fans even during pro-am rounds.
One reporter interviewed a pair of spectators just off the seventh tee, asking if they were Tiger fans (they were) and if they were any less a fan of Tiger because of The Scandal (they weren’t). “I just want to watch him play golf,” one of the men said.
Judging by the turnout on a chilly Wednesday morning, it is a widely held view.