By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
NORTON (CBS) — Normalcy.
These days, it seems that’s all anybody wants. That elusive, desperately desired “sense of normalcy.” Understandably so — even if it’s been uttered so many times as we stray farther and farther from its essence that the phrase might have already lost all meaning.
Surely, seemingly everything in America right now feels anything but “normal” — in real life, in sports, and everywhere in between. And certainly, nonchalantly standing five feet away from a golfer who generally attracts thousands upon thousands of adoring, raucous fans is decidedly not normal.
That’s where I found myself Thursday morning, capitalizing on the unique opportunities of a sports journalist by gaining access to The Northern Trust, which — due to the coronavirus pandemic — is closed to the general public. Though I may not normally cover golf on a regular basis, this was no normal event.
The last time I attended this tournament, I was one of thousands of spectators. The tournament had a different name and a different sponsor. It was held on a different date in a different playoff format. Yet it’s not so much those changes that makes this event feel foreign. It’s more that the tens of thousands of fans normally scattered throughout the grounds at TPC Boston were nowhere to be seen. Instead of grandstands and sky chalets, there were … trees. And grass.
The emptiness made this particular moment feel like the strangest place on earth.
Strange, in this instance, does not mean bad. In this case, it means that instead of trying to push your way through galleries that are 25 people deep in the summer heat to merely catch a glimpse of Tiger, you can merely walk up the tee box, stand just feet away from him, and casually walk alongside one of the most famous people in the entire world.
So that is what I did.
The Wax Museum
Even though fans are not allowed onto the grounds of TPC Boston, I still anticipated there’d be more people on hand for Tiger’s 8:37 a.m. tee time. His round was beginning on the 10th tee, which is no more than 30 steps away from the media center that serves as the central hub of this particular tournament.
Yet as Woods — sporting a bright blue shirt with a black hat, black pants, and black shoes — joined Matthew Fitzpatrick and Dylan Frittelli on the tee box on a pleasantly cool, dewy morning, only about 15 people were standing nearby.
Seeing Woods stand over his ball on the 10th fairway is like seeing a video game character come to life. A hologram. The wax figure from Madame Tussauds dropped in the middle of a golf course.
In my career and my life, I’ve seen quite a few superstars up close. LeBron James, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, David Ortiz, Sidney Crosby — the All-Stars among All-Stars. Only two have had the Wax Figure Effect: Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods.
For me, personally, that’s mostly due to having watched both Tiger and Jeter on television, at the peak of their abilities, from the mid-to-late ’90s into the early 2000s, a time period which happened to coincide with my adolescence. Like most people, that was the period of time when I was falling deeply in love with sports. Seeing Jeter play shortstop from seats low on the third-base line at Fenway was like climbing into a TV show I had watched for a decade. And seeing Tiger on TPC Boston in 2018 was like seeing Abraham Lincoln climb out of a history textbook and deliver the Gettysburg Address right before my very eyes.
Seeing Tiger on this course in 2018 was the first time in my life I had ever seen Woods in person. It was his first appearance at TPC Boston in five years, and though I don’t have any official figures and numbers, I’d estimate that he drew in roughly double the normal crowd.
For that tournament, when my father and I arrived for the third round, we saw that Woods was on the fifth hole. So we camped out at the eighth green and waited a bit. After some 20-30 minutes, a stampede of human beings emerged on the horizon. Tiger was coming.
That scene looked like something out of a historical war movie, with Tiger serving as something of a William Wallace to the thousands of people marching behind him.
This scene, two years later? This scene looked like a standard Thursday morning tee time at a local course. It just so happened that the greatest golfer the world has ever seen was first off the tee.
I was fortunate enough to be joined by fellow WBZer Dan Roche, who spent his off day following Tiger because, as he described it, “It’s like following around Michael Jordan.”
That’s an apt description, except this was like getting a private showing. At the busiest points, there were 15-20 people following Tiger — media members, photographers, videographers, volunteers, and police officers working the event. During the quietest times, there was maybe a total of five of us in tow.
Compared to the usual crowds of golf fans — men, women, children, and frat bros competing against each other to see who can yell “TIGER!” the loudest — this was downright … awkward. Though Woods has had millions of people staring at him for the past 25 years, when you’re one of three people watching him, you can’t help but feel like you shouldn’t be there — like you’ve hopped a fence and trekked through the woods, just waiting for an official to come and grab you by the collar while telling you that it’s time to leave.
Rochie thinks Woods must miss the energy and adrenaline rush that comes from navigating those massive crowds of people that flocked to every hole he’s ever played. Me, I’m not so sure. While a little added juice might help, someone like Tiger might appreciate this newfound peace that’s never once been a part of his professional golf experience.
Words can’t fully describe just how bizarre it is for Tiger Woods to tee off on the 1st tee (his 10th) during a playoff event with absolutely nobody around. Normally there’d be hundreds surrounding the tee, thousands on the course, all cheering, some screaming.
Now … silence. pic.twitter.com/lfiYxkH2K4
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) August 20, 2020
This round was actually my second day at the course. I showed up Wednesday to pick up my credential and to get a lay of the land, so that Thursday brought no surprises. And let me tell you this: If you feel awkward following Tiger during a competitive round, you can double or triple that feeling while watching the best golfers in the world during their practice rounds.
Your instinct, as a human, is to snap pictures and videos when you bump into your Rorys, your Dustins, your Justins and your Jordans. Yet when you’re just sort of … standing there as they fire off a series of putts, and there’s nobody else within earshot, you slide that phone back into your pocket to avoid that creeping paparazzo feeling.
There’s plenty of star power scattered throughout the course at all times, but the only player with equal magnetism to Tiger would of course be Phil Mickelson. On Wednesday afternoon, I fortunately looked up from my phone just in time to avoid a head-on collision in the parking lot with a man who appeared to have purchased the entire Phil Mickelson costume at the Halloween store: black Workday shirt, black KPMG hat, and super-reflective oversized shades.
The practice rounds were fun to see, but the real tournament felt like a whole lot more was at stake.
Woods teed off from the back for his first round, which presents a unique mental challenge. Every pro interviewed this week was asked about the back nine, and specifically the stretch from 11 to 14 that features the most challenging holes on the course. Patrick Reed said that if you can consistently par those holes, you’ll end up gaining strokes on the field.
On this day, Tiger made it through the impossibly long 12th with a par, but he sent his tee shot on 13 right, into the trees between the 13th and 14th fairway. Rochie and I camped out directly behind the ball, seeing a clear tunnel to the green through the trees.
Perhaps a younger Tiger would have tried (and obviously succeeded) to punch through the trees and make birdie. But at 44 years old and after undergoing all of the knee surgeries and the back surgeries, that wasn’t in the cards. Tiger tried to make the safe play by lobbing a shot over the trees back into the fairway; he came up short and ended up in the rough. His next shot went off the back of the green. He almost chipped in for par but had to take a bogey.
If Tiger felt any frustration, he released it with his driver on the next hole, when he outdrove Fitzpatrick by a clean 40 yards. He’d come close on a couple more birdie putts — a theme of his first nine — before finally getting a birdie with a two-putt on the par 5 18th.
For anyone who’s ever attended the tournament here, the most jarring views today come on the 16th and 18th. During normal times, the 16th — a par 3 with a tee shot that carries a scenic pond — is teeming with people filling the boxes and grandstands that surround the entire hole. The boxes that normally surround the 18th green create a similar arena feel that makes for a dramatic final view.
Now, though, they just look like golf holes. Beautiful, challenging, unique golf holes. In many respects, having nobody around allowed me to see just how gorgeous the 17th and 18th holes are. But there’s no doubt that the typical grand look and feel to these championship courses is sorely missed.
“It’s very different,” Woods said in his post-match interview. “Our walks are very different. Coming off the greens, just — then there’s no grandstands. The buildout is nowhere near what we had it, and it is very different, and it’s very foreign. Some of the greens complexes look — how can I put it? A lot bigger? Because they don’t have the structure around the greens, and we don’t have thousands upon thousands of people walking around this golf course. So it’s a very different atmosphere.”
You said it, Tiger.
The Tiger Moment
Nothing about this round may be normal, except for the feeling that comes when you’re watching Tiger Woods play golf.
Rochie, the eternal optimist, ran his phone battery dry trying to capture the shot, the Tiger moment that sparks the type of run we’ve all seen so many times before. And when his phone died, he’d nudge me: Get this one. Get this shot. Film this birdie. This might be the one.
I was fortunate to get to see this side of Roche. Here’s a guy who’s been to all the Super Bowls, World Series, Stanley Cup Finals and NBA Finals you can think of, yet his enthusiasm and genuine excitement for this moment and this opportunity with this player was palpable for the full five hours.
(Side note: You should all be so fortunate as to attend a sporting event with the one and only Dan Roche.)
The first real Tiger shot was his second on the 18th — a 235-yard shot that left him an eagle putt of just under 27 feet. He got that one to three feet and holed the resulting putt for his first bird of the day.
On the first fairway (his 10th hole of the day), Tiger looks a bit relaxed now. He picked up Fratelli’s divot and tossed it to his caddie. Outside the ropes, our group of traveling Tiger watchers has been whittled down to four total human beings (outside of those on the fairway working the live online broadcast). I’m getting somewhat used to being this close to Tiger … but can you ever really get used to that?
He delivered another Tiger shot on the par 5 second. After escaping a fairway bunker for a setup in front of the large water hazard, he perfectly placed a wedge from 110 yards out, dropping it behind the pin with a little spin to draw it back toward the hole.
He’d miss that 11-foot birdie putt, though, and he hated his tee shot off the club on the par 3 third. It ended up being OK, setting up his 16-foot birdie putt which dropped him below par for the first time all day.
Woods tried to hit the green on the drivable par 4 fourth, but ended up in a bunker on the front side of the green.
Time for another Tiger shot.
Bunker finesse from @TigerWoods. 👌
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 20, 2020
Back-to-back birdies … and Tiger was heating up.
He’d birdie the daunting 600-yard par 5 seventh before giving us another Tiger shot on the par 3 eighth.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 20, 2020
After that tee shot, two people in the tiny Tiger traveling party let out a whoop. “Great shot!” a woman yelled out from some 25 yards behind Tiger. That and the few claps were met with immediate silence and no recognition from anybody.
Here was Tiger, in the midst of a stretch of four birdies in a six-hole stretch, in a FedEx Cup event, and the only cheer lasted all of one single second, replaced by chirping birds, distant airplanes, and low murmurs from golfer to caddy on the tee box.
It was weird.
Had Tiger been able to close out his round with a third straight birdie, then he’d really have been cooking with gas. But he was disgusted by his tee shot, which bled right and led to his third muffled tee-box expletive by my unofficial count. Remember 100 years ago, when he’d face national criticism for showing disgust with himself in the tee box? He’s developed a very professional way of disguising that rage over the years … but it’s good to know the fire still burns.
He shook off that feeling, though, engaging in some friendly chatter with Frittelli as the threesome left the tee box. I didn’t overhear many conversations from Tiger on this day — he spent a lot of time on the side of the fairway opposite the ropes, and he wasn’t overly talkative in general — but in this moment he could be heard telling Frittelli, “I grew up on a par 3 course.”
Of course, Woods was toiling away on the par 3 courses of Heartwell and Bellflower in Southern California years before the 30-year-old Frittelli was even born. When Tiger won the ’97 Masters, Frittelli was still waiting to celebrate his seventh birthday in South Africa. Frittelli no doubt knows that Tiger is a mythical figure in golf, but he likely views him through a different prism than anyone who was old enough to really live through that meteoric rise to the top of the golf world.
In any event, the two were engaged your run-of-the-mill small talk, not at all unlike the types of chats you have with random strangers thrown into your weekend foursome. This one just involved Tiger Woods.
That errant tee shot left woods in the rough along the right side of the hole. It wasn’t too bad of a lie, and he had a decent angle at the green, but (by the sounds of it) he chunked the shot and came up short, landing on the bank of an evilly placed bunker about 25-30 yards shy of the green. Perhaps Tiger was a bit tired. I know I was; this course is quite long, and I don’t typically spend my Thursday mornings walking for seven miles.
His shot out of trouble was a roll or two shy of getting near the pin, and his 16-foot par putt didn’t go down. Woods’ back nine, which featured four birdies in the previous six holes, ended with a sour bogey.
With that, Woods gave some air fist-pumps to his playing partners and their caddies, headed off the mound behind the green, walked through the empty picnic tables set up for media dining, hopped on the back of a cart, and was whisked away, back to live a Tiger Woods life, whatever that entails.
What happens next, well, we will all see together — from afar. His score of 3-under left him in a 23-way tie for 30th place. He’ll enter the second round just four strokes off the lead, but in a crowded field featuring the world’s best golfers, a repeat of his 2006 win on this course may not be in the cards.
For his part, Woods — who entered the week ranked 49th in the FedEx Cup standings — said he just wants to get into that top 30, so he can play at East Lake, where he won two years ago.
When he won The Tour Championship that year, it not only marked the official return of post-surgeries Tiger as a viable winner once again. It also created one of the most dramatic scenes in recent golf history, with Tiger looking like the one-man Beatles as fans swarmed the 18th fairway with the hope of catching a glimpse of Tiger being back.
A few months later, Woods won the Masters for the first time in 14 years. He was indeed back. But then, another knee surgery, another setback.
He’s won once since then, and he remains one tournament win shy of setting the all-time record. If he does it this year, it will likely come in similarly dramatic fashion in one of the uniquely scheduled majors. That seems like the fitting place for Woods to author yet another uniquely Tiger moment.
For now, even when he’s not winning, he’s still quite a draw. The group playing in front of Tiger’s included Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, and Webb Simpson — the three players atop the FedEX Cup standings. Yet outside of watching them tee off on the 10th, Rochie and I didn’t make any added effort to sneak any looks at their shots. Not on this day. This day was about Tiger.
An Ordinary Day … Like No Other
Under normal circumstances, buying a simple grounds pass to a golf tournament gets you unbelievable access to the best players in the world. Unlike, say, the NFL, a ticket doesn’t just get you a seat hundreds of yards from the players. With some strategy and patience, you can get yourself within five feet of whichever golfer and however many golfers you want. There’s really nothing like attending a professional golf event. But there’s really nothing like attending this professional golf event.
Everything on the tee boxes, fairways, bunkers and greens was more or less exactly the same as it’s been the countless times Woods has played golf before. Yet everything outside of the ropes could not have been more different.
For 20-plus years, thousands of people saw Tiger play golf for four days every week that he played. Day after day, week after week, year after year, that number of spectators grew into the incalculable millions.
Witnessing Tiger Woods hit a shot or two is not in and of itself a wholly unique event. Yet everyone who’s done it remembers exactly when it happened, exactly where it happened, and exactly what happened.
So watching a private showing of Tiger, watching every single one of his 68 shots, with barely anybody on the course, in a round that’s not even televised? That is unquestionably a once-in-a-lifetime event. Nothing could have been less normal, and you know? Just this once, that’s quite all right.