MASTERS '23: Tiger draws big roars with a touch of nostalgia
By DOUG FERGUSON
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) Tiger Woods hit a 7-iron that was ordinary by his standards, some 30 feet from the hole. No one could have guessed where it landed judging by the massive roar at Riviera from the crowd next to him and 175 yards away around the 13th green.
It's like that whenever he plays, which is not often. And it prompted Colt Knost, calling the shots from the ground that day for CBS to say, “I wish I could have been here in 2000.”
But this is a different cheer than it was then. It's a different Woods.
The similarity is that it's still loud. Fans fight for every inch of grass behind the ropes to get a clear view. One ambitious man at Riviera climbed into a vacant TV tower and watched from behind a stationary TV camera as if he were working. He was caught from talking too much, and the beer can he was holding didn't help.
Back then, Woods was trying to win all four majors. Now he is trying to play all four majors. What hasn't changed is he is must-see golf.
The difference? There is a palpable sense that fans flock to see Woods knowing time is running out, for him and for them.
“He's a much bigger star now - much, much bigger,” Padraig Harrington said. “Where I saw it is when he came back to the Valspar (in 2018). Back in the day, everybody came out. There was a buzz. He hit phenomenal shots. But the people coming now, you're getting grandkids all the way up to the grandparents.
“The grandparents have seen him in the past, and they want to see the magic,” he said. “Back in the day, it felt like it would go on forever. There's a feeling now this maybe is the last dance.”
It was a wonder Woods even made it to Augusta National's dance floor last year. He was only 14 months removed from his SUV speeding off a suburban Los Angeles road, a crash that crushed bones in his right leg and ankle. He says amputation was contemplated.
And then there he was, making the cut at the Masters and hobbling his way through 72 holes. Since then, he made it through three rounds at Southern Hills in the PGA Championship and two rounds at St. Andrews in the British Open.
“I've got to be able to pick and choose my events and how many events I'm going to play,” Woods said at Riviera, his only start this year. “It's going to be probably the majors and maybe a couple more. Would I like to play more? Yes. Will it allow me to? I don’t know. I have to be realistic about that.”
He made the cut at Riviera, running off three straight birdies at the end of the opening round for a 69, one of them a 25-foot putt on the 17th hole. The crowd erupted, as always. That's not what got the attention of Justin Thomas' caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay. It's how long it lasted.
“He gets the ball out of the hole and the crowd goes wild,” Mackay said. "He goes to the back of the green and it was somebody else's turn to play - and they wouldn't stop cheering. I'm looking at Tiger and looking at the crowd and I'm like, ‘I’m not sure I've ever seen this.' It went on and on and on and on.
“As easy as it was to take Tiger and his greatness for granted, people are realizing he's not going to be here forever,” he said. “People are like, ‘Dammit, I’m going out there to see Tiger do his thing.'”
What was it like in 2000? There was more applause to go with the wild cheers because cellphones weren't allowed on the course, and the majority of cellphones didn't have cameras.
Social media meant a group of writers at the bar. Facebook came along in 2004, Twitter two years later, Instagram in 2010. That was the year Rory McIlroy first played with Woods, in an exhibition at the Memorial and the Chevron World Challenge late in the year.
“I feel there's more of a connection between fans and those sort of celebrities, now more than ever,” McIlroy said. “I think there was still a mystique around Tiger and that type of celebrity, and social media has broken down that barrier. People feel a little closer. There's more of a connection there. I think that's why the response to him is the way it is.”
There was awe during the peak Woods years, along with an anticipation because he almost always delivered. During one stretch toward the end of 1999 and into 2000, he either won or was runner-up in 10 out of the 11 tournaments he played on the PGA Tour.
And then came the knee surgeries, the scandal in his personal life, and a two-year revival when he returned to No. 1 in the world in 2013, followed by four back surgeries. And right when it looked like it was over, Woods won the Tour Championship in 2018, topping that with his Masters victory in 2019.
There was a feeling he could do anything, that he could never be counted out.
“There's still the same expectation of winning, even though he's on half a leg and half a back,” Jordan Spieth said. "I don't know what it was like from 1997 to 2008. It will never get bigger than him coming back at East Lake and then the Masters. People have realized it's like you get an opportunity to still watch Michael Jordan play in the NBA, you get to watch Ali fight. You have all those memories.
“And now all of a sudden it's like, ‘I still get to go watch this guy play.’”
And there's another element that made McIlroy chuckle.
“It's hard not to root for the underdog,” McIlroy said. “But that underdog is Tiger Woods.”
Max Homa played with Woods at St. Andrews, where the gallery is more reserved and knowledgeable, and he has been in the group ahead of and behind Woods in other tournaments to appreciate how fans respond to him.
“I think people are more in awe of him now,” Max Homa said. “I'm not saying they weren't in awe, but now more so. It's like they're seeing royalty or a president. He transcends golf. He's an icon. They rush to go see him just to see him. Before, you went to see him hit a golf shot. I think we all know good he is at golf by now. They want to say, ‘I got to see Tiger Woods.’”
Former Masters champion Trevor Immelman, the lead analyst for CBS, was at Riviera and was struck by the sheer number of people crammed behind the first tee - most holding a phone high to capture an image - and how the mood changed over four rounds.
They were still there. They were still loud.
“It's a really cool blend at the moment,” Immelman said. "What I find is that as he's about to tee off on Thursday, because he's played such brilliant golf over the years, everybody still thinks, ‘Wow, can he turn back the clock? Can he really win?’ And then if his game tails off a little bit, then the nostalgic side really kicks in.
“But if he somehow finds a way to get his name on or around the leaderboard come the second nine on Sunday afternoon, it's going to be all systems go.”
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Updated March 31, 2023