(picture – Chris Wood (right) with his son, Joe, at Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open.)
by Chris Wood
I’ll never forget as a 10-year-old seeing Wilt Chamberlain emerge from the tunnel of the Fabulous Forum, the Lakers’ home arena in that era. His sheer size and power was impressive, but Wilt had something else, an aura that was hard to describe but certainly palpable in his presence.
So it is with Tiger Woods. How else do you explain grown men in his presence acting like 12-year-old girls at a Justin Bieber concert?
I accepted the assignment of attending the U.S. Open to learn some things Pacific Northwest Golfer readers could use when the event comes to Chambers Bay in 2015 (a rough assignment, I know, but someone had to do it). What I learned – affirmed, really – is that Tiger is No. 1 and no one is a close second. Phil Mickelson may climb to No. 1 in the World Rankings, and fans may adore Mickelson more than Tiger. But star power is king in the sports world – especially in the summer of LeBron – and Tiger still reigns.
I’m nearing senior league status. Nicklaus has always been my guy. I’ve acknowledged Woods’ incredible talent and begrudgingly accepted that he likely will surpass Jack’s record of 18 professional majors one day. I’ve never been a fan of Tiger, however, even before the Cheatah scandal. But star power is hard to ignore.
Our group didn’t attend the first round and arrived mid-morning at the course on day two. Looking at the pairings, Casey-Garcia-Stricker caught my eye as a threesome worth following. Hearing the news that Tiger was already on his back nine and in mild danger of missing the cut, however, well, the teenybopper in me came out.
“We drove all the way from Idaho, and we might not see Tiger play at all? Aaah!”
You can see the crowds following Tiger, making it difficult to get close enough to watch. – Photo copyright USGA/John Mummert
Our frantic chase began to intercept Woods at No. 8, his penultimate hole. Having never previously attended a major, I quickly found out this wasn’t the Boise Open. You don’t move rapidly around the grounds of a U.S. Open, especially at Pebble Beach with its hills, ravines and cliffs, and nearly 40,000 fans in attendance. Just navigating the entrance carousel and setting foot on grass takes 15 minutes.
The crowds begin to swell anywhere within three holes of Tiger’s group. We came to a complete stop in a traffic jam 100 yards short of the 8th green. I tried to flash my media badge, but the marshal just chuckled. “Good luck,” he said.
We headed for the 9th fairway and perhaps our only chance for a view. The crowd there was already 50 people deep.
“Here he comes!” a middle-aged man shrieked as he caught sight of Tiger through one of those goofy periscopes. I thought better of snagging the device from him.
I did see the scoring standard above the crowd, and my son is pretty sure he saw the flash of Tiger’s iron on his approach shot from the 9th fairway. Otherwise, we were bitterly disappointed in our pursuit.
Within 10 minutes of Tiger’s departure we watched Stewart Cink, Justin Leonard, K.J. Choi and others from an arm’s-length away on the 10th tee. But only because The King had left the building and taken the majority of the fans with him.
Mickelson was the main attraction later Friday afternoon as he soared into contention with a 66, but his crowd was miniscule compared to Tiger’s draw.
Relief came when Woods made the cut and would play the weekend. Our third-round strategy was to find a good spot and wait him out. We arrived before play started and perched atop the grandstand overlooking the famous par-3 7th. It’s an idyllic spot with panoramic views of the course, Stillwater Cove and Carmel Bay, but the grandstand is no place for casual fans. Saving seats at any time is prohibited, and the volunteer marshals enforce the rule. A trip to the bathroom meant possibly losing your spot, a certainty within an hour of Tiger’s arrival.
Dehydration be damned, we waited six hours and saw Tiger’s birdie putt on No. 6, all three strokes on No. 7, and his tee shot on No. 8. Pretty cool.
Then we headed straight for No. 18 – with a much-needed pit stop – and a second vigil perched next to the NBC TV tower. Three hours later we had a Johnny Miller’s-eye view of Tiger’s incredible approach shot to the 18th green. TV distorts the angle, but I can attest with the naked eye that his 260-yard shot was over the bunker, seawall, and rocks, near the water’s edge at the apex of its curve, before veering back toward land and eventually stopping 20 feet from the hole. A roar followed that only Tiger – and perhaps Jack at Augusta – can elicit.
Never mind that I didn’t have my camera ready to capture the shot because we figured there was no way Tiger would go for the green from behind that tree. Never mind that Tiger faded in the final round and some guy named Graeme McDowell won. Sitting next to a buddy and my son, on Father’s Day weekend, I finally witnessed in person the biggest star in sports do his thing. Very cool.
I may not be a Tiger fan, but I can’t help being star-struck.
Chris Wood has been covering Idaho for Pacific Northwest Golfer for two years. He began covering golf in 1985 as a sportswriter at the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. Chris was the editor and publisher of Intermountain Golf Magazine from 1995-2006.