Monday, December 17, 2007
Up close and (sort of) personal with Tiger Woods
By Bob Smiley Special to ESPN.com
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The idea was simple -- follow Tiger Woods for every single second of Round 2 at the Target World Challenge. From the moment he stepped out of his courtesy car till he disappeared into the clubhouse, I would be right there by his side.
Well, sort of.
After all, even though you're reading this on ESPN.com, my official unofficial title is "amateur golf blogger," which comes with about as many perks as you would think -- I paid for my own ticket, parked really far away and could watch Tiger only from outside the ropes. For many, joining the mob around the world's No. 1 player is the only way to watch a golf tournament. For me, this meant facing three of the great blogger fears -- socializing with other people, physical contact and exercise.
When it was all over, I had my picture taken with Tiger, Bruce Jenner had given me a little pep talk and there was a new tournament record. Watching golf from the couch in my mom's basement may never be the same.
The author even got himself photographed with Tiger. See, that's him right there -- the guy in awe of Woods' swing.
7:25 a.m.: I leave the house, 3 hours and 25 minutes before Tiger is set to tee off. I'm insane.
7:45 a.m.: Or not. One mile and 20 minutes later, I'm finally on the freeway. This is L.A., after all.
8:23 a.m.: I arrive at the dirt field where the riffraff are forced to park. Any thoughts about it not being crowded disappear when I see a sign that lists the things you can't bring onto the course, including, in all caps, "NO LADDERS."
8:34 a.m.: As the shuttle pulls up in front of the Sherwood Country Club clubhouse, the kid a few rows in front of me looks in the parking lot and says, "Dad, do you think that's Tiger Woods' Buick?" It's the most excited any kid has been about seeing a Buick in 50 years.
8:48 a.m.: Waiting next to the players' parking lot for Tiger, I turn my head when I hear the sound of spikes ... only to see random fans showing up in their golf shoes. This has always struck me as lame. Since when is everyone having problems walking on grass without falling?
8:49 a.m.: Now that I've made fun of these people, I realize that I'm sure to fall down at some point today.
8:50 a.m.: He's here. Tiger Woods pulls into the parking lot driving a beige Buick Enclave. When he steps out, I notice his pants are beige, too. I have a hard enough time matching my pants with my shirt. He matches his clothes with his car.
8:51 a.m.: Walking toward us with two protein bars in hand, he offers up a quick, "Morning, guys" before heading inside. A security guard feels bad for the handful of kids and announces, "This isn't the time. There'll be a place where he'll gladly sign!" Translation: "Not here. Not now."
8:59 a.m.: With Tiger in the clubhouse, beyond the reaches of my "Grounds Only" badge, I head to the driving range. En route, I see people crowding around a Buick tent where umbrellas are being given away in exchange for taking a survey. I'm not really sure why anyone would want to carry an umbrella around for five hours, especially when there's not a cloud in the sky.
9:00 a.m.: I realize now that I've made fun of the umbrella people it will probably rain. And then I'll fall down again because I'm still not wearing golf shoes.
9:56 a.m.: Where's Tiger? The only highlight of the last hour was when Steve Stricker hit a shot that nailed the roof of the range cart and scared the poor guy driving it.
10:10 a.m.: Finally, Tiger arrives and receives warm applause from the crowd, now standing three to four deep.
10:11 a.m.: Caddie Steve Williams brings over two bags of range balls for his boss. But unlike every other bag used so far this morning, Tiger's bags are bright red, not green. As I'd later learn from Shaun Cockery, the Sherwood employee running the range, the red bags are only for the Nike Platinum TW balls, a ball only one guy out here uses. Probably a good idea to make sure Rory Sabbatini doesn't take them by mistake.
10:26 a.m.: Working through his bag quickly, Tiger needs to hit only one stinger, an absolute laser, before moving onto other shots.
10:37 a.m.: At the chipping area, Stevie drops a handful of balls at 35 yards, 20 yards and then next to the green. Tiger moves through the piles like a machine, none of his shots ending up more than six feet from the hole. He kicks a few balls into the bunker, knocks them within a few feet of the cup, and heads to the putting green.
10:44 a.m.: While Tiger's en route, I stop to get the scoop on the red bags from Cockery. But I have to wait my turn as Cockery's busy talking with Sherwood member and former gold medalist Bruce Jenner. When Cockery asks me if he's going to be on SportsCenter, I laugh and tell him "I'm not that important." The comment irks Jenner, causing him to turn to me and say pointedly, "Never underestimate yourself." I'll remember that.
10:51 a.m.: Tiger finishes his warm-up on the putting green by trying to make a 35-foot downhiller with only his right hand. He drains it on his first try. Even more frightening was the fact he had no reaction to what would have been the first thing I told my buddies when we got to the tee.
11:02 a.m.: Tiger tees off and I'm on the move along with 150 other people. Hollywood producers talk about the "four quadrant movie" -- one that appeals to men and women, young and old. As I look around, it's obvious that Tiger is the "four quadrant athlete." On the first hole alone I see an old man being pushed in a wheelchair and a new mom with a baby strapped to her chest, both of which keep me from ever complaining about having to walk.
11:10 a.m.: I'm at the first green and already I can't see a thing. The guy next to me can't see anything either, but he still groans "Ohhhh!" when the people who can see react to Tiger missing his birdie putt. That's what I call being a good sport.
11:40 a.m.: While walking down the fourth hole, I meet Jessie, a smooth 30-something country music songwriter who dresses like a surfer, walks with a cane and can't say anything without it sounding like a song lyric. Why he loves golf: "I feel alive on the first tee." What he thinks of the redesign of his local muni: "Not your daddy's country golf course anymore." Best of all is Jessie's reason for why one has to watch Tiger in person: He shakes his head and just says, "That ball flight ..."
11:48 a.m.: Tiger eats a power bar after teeing off on No. 5. Is it pathetic that I feel a special connection to that power bar since I saw it arrive with him three hours ago? Yes, it is.
11:51 a.m.: I'm waiting to cross the fairway as people start to fill in around me. It's hard to feel claustrophobic on a golf course, but this is pretty close. On cue, someone leads us all in a collective "Moooo ..." as the marshal takes down the ropes and we make our way to the other side.
12:04 p.m.: When you're up close at a tournament, you start to notice the little things -- as Tiger taps in for his birdie on the fifth, I realize his Scotty Cameron putter has a Nike head cover on it. I hope some contract lawyer at Nike got a promotion out of that slick maneuver.
12:06 p.m.: Jessie was right about the ball flight. Tiger steps up to the tee at No. 6 and proceeds to launch a 3-wood with a gorgeous 20-yard draw to match the curve of the fairway. Any critics who say today's players can't work the ball like they used to are not watching that closely.
12:15 p.m.: Tiger "misses" his first shot of the day. His drive flies 300 yards but finds the rough near the rock outcropping in the middle of the seventh fairway, meaning his next shot will find him standing on flowers a worker nurtured for the last month and a half.
12:20 p.m.: There go the flowers. It's a good thing I didn't bring my grandmother to this thing. She'd be so appalled that Tiger doesn't get free relief from there that she wouldn't be able to appreciate the fact he just knocked it hole high.
12:43 p.m.: As we all walk toward No. 9, the 60-something man near me is in the middle of giving a confident and tortured biography of Tiger Woods to his lady friend, an exegesis that includes a comparison of Tiger to Hannah Montana and the little known fact that Tiger's real name isn't Tiger, it's "Elrod." Huh? This is made even better by the fact that, unbeknownst to him, Tiger's mom Tida is walking right next to him.
12:51 p.m.: Tiger birdies the ninth to finish the front nine at 4-under-par -- the easiest 32 you'll ever see.
1:02 p.m.: Tiger strikes it to about eight feet on No. 10 and the two older guys next to me start betting on whether or not he'll make it. They go back and forth on the odds, finally settling on 3-to-2, only to realize they both wanted to bet he makes it. When I ask if I can get their names for this article, they laugh and say, "Yeah, right." They clearly don't know I'm as important as Bruce Jenner says I am.
1:04 p.m.: A maintenance truck is forced to stop as hundreds of us flee the 10th and rush down a street in Lake Sherwood on our way to No. 11. The driver's clearly annoyed till a fan explains to him, "We're following Tiger Woods!" The driver relaxes and says, "Oh, OK." I'm guessing that wouldn't have worked as well with "We're following Niclas Fasth!"
1:19 p.m.: Tiger rolls in his putt for eagle on 11 and some guy in our group says, sincerely, "Nice birdie, Tiger!" We roll our eyes, annoyed that one of our own would make us all look so stupid. Tiger smirks, knowing the real story is that his good round is quickly becoming a great one.
1:21 p.m.: As we trudge up a hill between the 11th and 12th holes, a man struggling to get to the top laughs and says, "I try not to play courses this steep."
1:28 p.m.: Our effort is rewarded as that same guy and I have a front row seat when Tiger rolls in a 30-footer for birdie on 12. The applause from a few holes ago has now become a roar. The old Asian man next to me is so giddy he turns around and starts doing what I think was supposed to be a fist bump. And for the first time today, I'm starting to do some math in my head. "Seven-under through 12 with two par-5s to go ... does he have a chance for 59?"
1:48 p.m.: Tiger eats his second (and last, as I well know) power bar of the day as he waits for partner Henrik Stenson to tee off. Poor Henrik -- it takes five hours for me to mention him and even then it's only because Tiger ate a snack.
2:10 p.m.: After pars on Nos. 14 and 15, shooting 59 is out of the question, but there's still a chance at 60 or at least a course record. All I know is Tiger has yet to really blow a shot.
2:11 p.m.: No! Until now. His drive on the par-5 16th has flown the fairway bunker. I'm running. Me, running.
2:14 p.m.: Not good. Tiger's ball has come to rest on some TV cables in a hazard just a few feet away. Grown men are knocking down shrubs to get a look. Williams arrives and asks everyone to take a few steps back. I move my feet in place as fans who haven't been here since 8:23 a.m. follow orders.
2:16 p.m.: Tiger takes a penalty, then a drop off the cart path and ultimately pitches out to give himself a wedge in for his 4th. Suddenly he looks less like Tiger and more like, well, Elrod.
2:23 p.m.: Let me finish! Tiger pulls off another one, knocking it to two feet, saving par and a chance at a record in the process. If I knew anything about world history, there would probably be a perfect analogy for how Tiger came back on that hole. For now I can only compare it to every third episode of "Baywatch" when some swimmer appeared to be dead only to miraculously cough at the last second and come back to life.
2:40 p.m.: Tiger drains his long birdie putt on 17 to get to 9-under for the day. The scoring placard for this group says it all: "Woods: -12/Stenson: -3." Somehow I don't think they'll be in the same pairing tomorrow.
2:50 p.m.: As we arrive at the 18th green, it truly feels different than other times I've been to a golf tournament. This may sound crazy, but after following Tiger all day, I feel like on some weird level, we all really did help him play so well. In fact, I'm sure that's the biggest reason fans do this week in and week out -- to say they were a part of something great. Think I'm inflating our importance? As someone special once told me, never underestimate yourself.
2:52 p.m.: Tiger makes his birdie for 62. Excuse me, a tournament-record 62. He did it. We did it.
3:02 p.m.: After signing a few autographs, Tiger Woods disappears into the media room, leaving me alone for the first time since our day started. It took six and a half hours and covered more than five miles, but what seemed like a chore ended up being one of the most fun experiences I've ever had at a tournament. Turns out thousands of golf fans can't be wrong.
Except, of course, for the ones wearing golf shoes. I didn't fall down once.
Bob Smiley is a TV writer and contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage. He also writes the golf blog Fore Right and can be reached at Bobsmiley77@gmail.com.