I walked inside the ropes with Tiger for his entire opening round at East Lake, and there were two things I was hoping to see: 1) a Tiger Moment, where Woods pulls off a shot that no one else on earth can hit, and 2) some Tiger/Steve Williams banter, where the player-caddie team breaks down a shot and then Woods executes it.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m always fascinated in the rare instances when TV microphones pick up these conversations. Which reminds me: why can’t we mike up golfers like they do with quarterbacks on Monday Night Football? On to my observations from the round:
• It was obvious from their opening moments on the first tee that Tiger and his playing partner, Steve Stricker, are good friends. I couldn’t hear the entire conversation, but Tiger definitely called him “Stricks.” When Tiger gives you a nickname, you know you’re in the club.
• A lot of folks like to discuss Tiger’s intimidation factor. To be honest, I didn’t see it on Thursday — he clearly had fun yakking it up with Stricks. But one reason it’s tough to play with Tiger is the chaos around his group. It’s always dead silent when Tiger putts, but once he’s in the hole, it’s common for people to start moving. Gallery, photographers, reporters, everyone. Also, when the group was on the third tee, a public bus pulled up at the curb just outside the grounds as Stricker was about to swing, causing him to back off his shot. Does Tiger’s intimidation factor extend to public transit?
• Tiger buried a four-footer on No. 3 for his first birdie and was in an utter trance as he strolled by me to the fourth tee. A little old lady next to me yelled out, “You’re gonna WIN, Tiger,” as he passed. Woods didn’t even blink.
• It took all of five holes before my “Tiger Moment” arrived. After taking the orange tiger headcover off the driver for the first time, Tiger yanked his tee shot on the 520-yard par-4 about 20 yards left of the fairway. His ball was sitting down in the rough, with a massive pine about 30 yards in front of him blocking his path to the green. He had a clear shot to the fairway. Time to pitch out, right? No. After practically no chit-chat with Stevie, Tiger pulled a long iron out of his bag (he had about 225 to the front), took a few practice swings and blasted a boomerang hook through the clearing and around the pine. The ball rode the jetstream for about 150 yards before taking a couple of big hops and running up the remaining fairway to the green. He had about 60 feet left.
• Same hole, now on the green. I got a great spot behind Tiger as he lined up his long birdie try. Stricker was outside him on a completely different line and missed. Tiger said to Williams, “Good preview.” Stevie agreed. I thought to myself, “Good preview? You’re on a totally different line.” Tiger’s lag effort was weak, stopping about 12 feet short and right of the hole — right on the line that Stricker’s putt passed. You know what happened next: Drain-o, par, a tip of the cap and on to the next. As they say here in Atlanta: that’s why he’s Tiger Woods, y’all.
• On No. 8, Woods pushed his drive right into the gallery. The ball caromed off a spectator, a man who looked to be about 40, and settled behind another tree. The man mentioned his fresh shoulder bruise to Woods when he arrived at the scene. “Sorry about that, man,” Woods said. “I’d give you the ball, but I have to play it.” The gallery cracked up. Williams then passed Tiger a fresh glove, which he quickly signed and handed to the spectator. Applause. His shot from behind the tree settled just off the back of the green. Bogey. He was out of his trance. In fact, Tiger was ticked off.
• Naturally he birdied the next hole, the par-5 ninth, after a heat-seeking missile off the tee and a pure 3-wood that settled in the rough just left of the green. A chip, a 10-footer, and Tiger was even through nine.
• After birdies on 12 and 13, Tiger pulled his drive on 14. He avoided any profanities but let loose an “Ohhhhh WOODY.” That’s right. He referred to himself by a third-person nickname. I guess if you’re Tiger, you can get away with that, but I don’t think any of us should start calling him Woody.
• After absolutely nuking his drive on the 525-yard par-5 15th, Tiger was standing near the ropes when a particularly brave 20-something leaned over to say, “Great drive, Tiger,” before stretching out his fist for a knuckle-five. Tiger stunned me by acknowledging the kid, saying, “Thanks, man,” and giving the kid the bump. So much for my theory that he doesn’t hear the gallery.
• I was hoping to pick up more conversations between Woods and Williams, but for their entire back nine, a loud, a low-flying plane circled East Lake while towing a banner ad for Cheetah’s gentlemen’s club. (Stay classy, Atlanta.) Woods and Williams never really raised their voices, so eavesdropping was impossible.
• On the par-3 18th, Stricker blasted from a greenside bunker to about two feet. Someone in the gallery hollered, “What do you expect from a two-time comeback player of the year?” This killed Woods and Williams. Once again, evidence that Tiger hears the galleries.
• Tiger completed his back nine with three birdies and no bogeys for a round of 67, one behind the leader, Sean O’Hair. Tiger’s post-round interview was typically vanilla. “I felt if I shot under par today I’d be fine,” he said. “Luckily I birdied 9 and then kind of got it going on the back nine. I accomplished my goal of shooting under par for the day.”
Just another day in the life for Tiger Woods.