PALM HARBOR, Fla. — It was a surreal scene, a sign of the times, a microcosm of this social media-mad world we’re living in. Call it what you want: When Tiger Woods yanked his tee shot at the 1st hole into the pine straw on Saturday a mob of fans circled his ball. But how many of them actually witnessed him punch a low draw back into play? Not many.
Arguably the greatest player of all time was five feet away — these fans essentially had the equivalent of floor seats to see Michael Jordan — and yet a sea of smartphones captured the moment, turning every spectator into a cameraman and videographer. (The pro move appears to be a two-handed, over-the-head video shot.) FOMO, also known as fear of missing out, is taking the PGA Tour by storm now that fans are allowed to bring cell phones on the course.
It’s no longer good enough to say you were there when Woods chipped in at 9 on Saturday, or holed a 43-foot birdie putt at 17 on Sunday, or ducked into the portable toilet on the 17th hole on Friday. (Yes, seriously. “People following him in there with a camera, it’s ridiculous,” his caddie, Joe LaCava, told the New York Times.) You need to be able to post the moment to Instagram or Snapchat, or text it to your friends.
To be fair, the good people of Florida’s Gulf Coast had waited 22 years for Woods to return to play at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course, and they came out in force to see a living legend. PGA Tour Radio on-course analyst Mark Carnevale, who has walked nearly all of Woods’s rounds this season and competed against Woods in his heyday on Tour, said the crowds at the Valspar Championship were the biggest he’s ever seen.
“Even counting major championships,” Carnevale said. “The size of the crowds that actually followed him from hole-to-hole was out of this world.”
Jordan Spieth, who played alongside Woods in the opening two rounds, said the atmosphere indeed reminded him of a major. To say the crowds were stacked 5-10 deep wasn’t hyperbole. Among those who braved the madness to see for himself was Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson.
“Golf became fun again thanks to you,” Jackson tweeted.
There is something else that is different about this new lovefest between Woods and his fans. NBC’s Roger Maltbie noticed the new vibe and summed it up quite elegantly.
“There was always the Tigermania, the electricity, the buzz that no one else could generate,” Maltbie said. “But there is a level of adoration and love out there now. They truly miss this guy. It is more like an Arnold Palmer crowd if you know what I’m saying. It is a change in the atmosphere, but still plenty of excitement. If you are a golfer, it is fun to watch.”
Woods’s fall from grace is well documented and, lest we forget, self-inflicted. But if all isn’t forgiven, there is certainly a sense that people are willing to give him another chance and they want to see Woods succeed. They want to see him ride off into the sunset, if not with 19 majors, then at least with an 80th PGA Tour victory.
“Loud. Very, very loud,” Woods said when asked to describe the fan support he received all week. “The people here in Tampa are really into it. It has been incredible.”
No one is better than Woods at getting into his little cocoon of concentration and blocking out all the knuckleheads yelling, “You da man!” Speaking at the Genesis Open after playing with Woods for two days, Rory McIlroy called it a half-shot-a-day penalty. “Like it’s two shots a tournament he has to give to the field because of all that that goes on around,” he said. “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.”
It will be interesting to track the Woods intimidation factor inside the ropes. At the Honda Classic, Brandt Snedeker and Patton Kizzire both missed the cut. So did Spieth and Henrik Stenson at the Valspar. On Saturday, Snedeker and Woods shot matching 67s, bettering the sterling performance of 21-year-old hotshot Sam Burns alongside Woods on Sunday at Honda. Snedeker seemed to revel in the big stage.
“If I couldn’t have fun today, I need to find another job,” Snedeker said. “Playing with Tiger Woods in the second to last group at Tampa and the crowd going crazy, both playing good, it’s fun doing. It’s tough to be playing bad. When you’re playing good, it’s fine.”
On Sunday, Snedeker was sucked into the Woods vortex and skidded to a 78.
“He sucks all the air out of a pairing,” NBC’s Peter Jacobsen said. “He makes you feel like a spectator.”
It is too early to say if the Woods mystique and aura still exist. His putting on Sunday was un-Tiger-like. He ranked 58th in strokes gained-putting and didn’t make a birdie in between the 1st and 17th holes. But all these young guns who grew up idolizing Woods are about to find out what it’s like to go head-to-head with their hero. Count Paul Casey, the Valspar champion, among those who are battle-scarred from Woods.
“I actually I want him to play brilliant golf, want him to win again because I want these kids to see what we dealt with for a long, long time,” Casey said.
When and if Woods wins again, expect an avalanche of photos and videos to be posted. It just might break the Internet.