Trailing Tiger at the Wyndham

When Tiger Woods, perhaps the greatest golfer to ever play the game, committed to play in the Wyndham Championship, I knew I had to go.

Having lived in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina for nearly 15 years as a child, I am very familiar with Greensboro, where the tournament is held every year.  In fact, while living in the area, I attended at least two rounds of the Wyndham each year from 2007 to 2009.  Even after moving to South Carolina, I still consider the event my “hometown tournament” on the PGA Tour, and it is still the closest to me as far as driving distance.

But Tiger never played the Wyndham.  Greensboro’s tour event is the final event before the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, which begin next week at The Barclays in New Jersey, and in that 2007-09 period, during which he was in his prime, the event was never necessary for him to play to cement his status in The Playoffs (he went on to win the FedEx Cup in 2007 and 2009).

In 2011, while battling injuries and a shaky golf game, Tiger was outside the playoff bubble, but said the week of the Wyndham was a week he was spending with his children (remember, he’s been through a very highly publicized divorce), and that playing tournament golf that week was off-limits.  Last year, coming off of back surgery, he opted to rest to try to get healthy, rather than playing the Wyndham and throwing a “hail mary” to try to make The Playoffs.

Tiger also plays practically the same schedule of events every year.  In addition to the major championships, there are some events Tiger typically plays, and some he typically doesn’t, or never has.  The Wyndham has been in the last category his entire career.  The last time Tiger played an event for the first time was in 2012, when he played the Greenbrier Classic for the first time (that event has only been played since 2010).

This time, however, is different.  Tiger appears to be fully healthy, and instead of injury it is his golf game which needs a return to health.  Tiger’s best finish of the year is a tie for 17th at The Masters, and he missed the cut in the other three major championships this season.  As he retools his swing, he has continuously said he is, slowly, making some progress with his game.

Following the missed cut at the PGA Championship last week, Woods currently ranks 187th in the FedEx Cup standings, with the top 125 at the end of the Wyndham Championship qualifying for The Barclays next week.  Knowing that more competitive rounds are certainly one thing that will help his comeback, Tiger decided to play the Wyndham in an attempt to qualify for The Playoffs.  To do so, he most likely has to win (although a solo second place finish can get him in with some help).

Within ten minutes of Tiger’s commitment to the Wyndham last Friday, I bought a ticket for the tournament’s opening round on Thursday.  I still have family in the area, giving me a place to stay, I had not been to the tournament in six years, and I wanted to witness a bit of tournament history with Woods’ maiden appearance in the event.  By Sunday, my non-golfing aunt, Terri, decided she wanted to see Tiger as well.

With Tiger set to tee off this morning at 7:50 a.m., it was an early wake-up call–my alarm went off at 5:55 a.m.  After changing into a Wyndham Championship golf shirt I still had from years ago, eating a quick bowl of cereal, and stopping by to pick up Terri, we arrived at Sedgefield Country Club around 7:15, immediately finding Tiger on the range (after walking past, and getting the autograph of, the PGA Championship’s third-place finisher Branden Grace as he departed the range for his tee time).  His turquoise-colored hat (a color which surprised me a little) made him easy to spot the rest of the day.

About 7:35, we made our way to the 10th hole, where Tiger’s round was to begin, arriving just in time to see the group of Ben Crane, Charles Howell III, and George McNeill tee off.  I couldn’t decide if they would like playing in the group directly in front of Woods or not, but then had the thought that with many in the gallery going just ahead of Tiger’s threesome then waiting for them to come through, this was still, in all likelihood, one of the bigger galleries the three of them had played in front of all year.

At 7:50, after the opening shots of young guns Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama, the starter announced “from Jupiter, Florida, Tiger Woods”, followed by a receptive cheer from the gallery.  Tiger acknowledged the crowd by waving briefly and tipping his cap, before beginning his practice swings to prepare to tee off.

During his struggles, Tiger has struggled with what many call a “two-way miss”, and on his opening tee shot the miss was to the left.

Terri and I didn’t have a great vantage point for the tee shot, and that, combined with the overcast sky, made it nearly impossible to see where the tee shot landed.  As we walked down the left, we realized the gallery had been moved back to make room for a player, then realized it was Tiger, who was about 20 feet in front of us at the bottom of the small hill we were on, giving us an excellent vantage point.

All I could tell about the approach to the par-4 was it was headed left.  It ended up about 10 or 15 yards right of the green, and Tiger had short-sided himself, as he only had about 15 feet of green to work with.

We didn’t quite get even with the green before Tiger got set to hit his pitch.  Honestly, at first I wasn’t even sure it was him playing the shot due to him being surrounded by the gallery, but perhaps Koepka or Matsuyama, before seeing both of them on the green watching.  Suddenly I saw the ball pop up about 20 feet in the air, come straight down about 10 feet from the hole, and rolled straight in the middle for a birdie.

Tiger raised his arm in the air, and the crowd let out its first “roar” after he had pulled off the nearly impossible shot.  I too, put my arms in the air, and Tiger’s round was off to a great start.

With two very good young players in Tiger’s group, including Koepka, who happens to also reside in Jupiter, FL and finished tied for 5th in the PGA Championship last week, I tried to watch all of their shots as well, as both have the potential to be superstars down the road.  Instead, I found out quickly that after Tiger holed out, or even got to within tap-in range, most of his followers moved on to the next hole.

At first, wanting to watch Koepka and Matsuyama, and almost having sympathy for them as well, I tried to not by one of those people.  I had also decided to keep a scorecard for Tiger, as well as his playing partners, as a keepsake of the event, meaning it would help to watch all the shots.  However, I rapidly realized that staying back too long would put us at a disadvantage in trying to get the best vantage point of the Tiger, the reason we were there to begin with, on the following hole.

The long par-4 11th played as the toughest hole, statistically, in Thursday’s first round, and after missing the fairway, with the “two-way miss” going right this time (I’d now seen both misses in the first 15 minutes of the round), Tiger’s approach from the right rough landed about 10 yards short of the green.

Instead of playing a low, running shot which I was expecting (as were the announcers on PGA Tour Live, I found out later), Woods tried a higher pitch shot with more backspin.  In what would end up being his biggest mistake of the day, it didn’t work.

The ball didn’t even get on the green, leaving 39 feet for par from just off the edge (note: most of the distances of shots in this post are according to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink).  Tiger missed the putt five feet short, and made the ensuing putt for his first bogey of the day.

With Tiger’s recent track record, I was afraid at this point that what had happened at the 10th was a case of Tiger catching lightning in a bottle and looking like his old self for one hole, and what had happened on the 11th was a more accurate foreshadowing of what was to come in his round.

I was wrong.  That was Tiger’s only bogey of the day.

Thinking ahead to the next hole, knowing it was a par-3, and learning quickly that many in the gallery move when they believe there’s nothing left of the hole to see, we didn’t even see Tiger’s bogey putt.  We were already walking down the 12th hole, and found a spot in the second row just behind the back-right corner of the green, with the pin about 50 feet from us in the back left.

When Tiger teed off on the 12th, the ball bounced right in the center of the green, then rolled just off the back edge, stopping just in front of us.  The split-second decision to abandon Tiger’s bogey putt at the 11th had really paid off with a very good view of his birdie putt, which was a lengthy one, on the 12th.  His birdie putt rolled to within three feet, before he tapped in for par.  With such a good vantage point, this time we didn’t move until after Tiger holed out (he was the last of the group to do so).

Doing so resulted in our view not being quite as good on the 13th, where Tiger hit his first fairway of the round, and hit his approach to the par-4 to just inside five feet.  From about the sixth or eighth row of fans, I saw him make the birdie putt, moving back under-par for the round.

Tiger missed the fairway left on the par-4 14th, then hit his second shot right in the center of the green, 38 feet from the hole, and two-putted for a conventional par on a hole which statistically ranked as the second-toughest on the day.

After the test of the 14th, the players catch a break with the 15th, an easily reachable par-5 which was the day’s second-easiest hole.  After an excellent drive to the center of the fairway, Tiger hit his approach to the center of the green, setting up a 41-foot eagle putt.  His birdie putt was hit with a very good pace, ending up the right distance but five feet right of the hole.  Tiger made that putt, moving to 2-under for the round with his third birdie, as all three players in the group made birdie.

The throng following Tiger, which by the end of the round grew to at least a thousand people (my best guess, anyway), came to somewhat of a dead-end as Tiger’s threesome teed off on the 16th, a short par-3 over water.  When following a group as a fan at Sedgefield, there is no direct way to quickly get from the area of the 16th tee across the lake to the 16th green.  Therefore, our choices after the group hit their tee shots and walked to the green were to stand beside the 16th tee and watch the group from afar, or go on to the 17th hole, which loops back the other direction behind and past the 16th tee.

I knew that space surrounding the greens of the holes later in the back nine would be a commodity with such a big crowd following Tiger, so we went ahead down the 17th hole, and I used the standard-bearer sign, which displays the score of each player for the tournament, to find out if any one of the medium-length birdie putts in the group on the 16th had been successful.  Nope, three pars.

As I had predicted, we all squeezed between the bleachers (those fans had been in those seats waiting for a while) and the skyboxes (for people more connected than I am) at the 17th green, and it wasn’t overly easy to find a vantage point.  We were lucky enough to find one, and saw Tiger, who had hit the fairway and hit his approach to 21 feet, narrowly miss birdie.  With Tiger having a gimme left, we moved to the 18th.

The 18th is traditionally the toughest hole at Sedgefield, and Thursday ranked as the third toughest.  Tiger hit a 321-yard drive down the center of the fairway, then hit his approach from 163 yards to 10 feet, in one of the better shots I’ve ever seen on the hole.  We found a spot on the steps going up to the 18th green’s bleachers, and saw Tiger roll in the putt for his fourth birdie, and an outward nine of 3-under par 32.

Not bad for his first nine holes in competition at Sedgefield.

Tiger and his playing partners got to ride a golf cart from the 18th green to the first tee, while the rest of us walked behind the ninth green, through the hospitality area near the clubhouse, and down a road towards the first hole.  As you can imagine, by the time the throng (our at least our part of it) reached the first, the threesome had all teed off and were walking to their balls.  Tiger’s tee shot on the par-4 landed just off the edge of the fairway on the right (I only know that from looking at ShotLink), and he hit his approach to six feet.  Catching up to the group, we got close enough to see Tiger’s putt.  He made it for another birdie.  Four-under par.

We never could get a great view on the par-4 second hole, as Tiger hit into the left rough and then 51 feet behind the hole.  When he lagged his birdie putt to seven feet, which looked closer from our vantage point, we moved to the third hole, and found a spot behind the green.  Tiger made the par putt.

The pin at the par-3 third was in the back-left corner, and we found a spot behind the back-left corner in about the third row of patrons.  Tiger’s ball hit the center of the green and rolled toward the back-center, 26 feet from the hole.  I thought about moving us to ahead to the fourth, but I had a hunch Tiger was going to make the putt.  I was almost right, as the putt rolled within a few inches of the hole, and he tapped in for par.

We couldn’t see the players tee off on the par-4 fourth from where we were, and we walked quickly to reach the green, even getting to see the group ahead putt.  The pin was on the same side we were, just a few feet from the gallery ropes, and even though we were a few rows deep, we still could see the players and the hole well.  Tiger hit his second shot 12 feet from the hole, facing a quick putt for birdie.

After Tiger hit the putt, he began walking toward the hole, thinking the putt was short, and preparing to line up a par putt. The ball kept rolling, stayed on line, and fell in the hole. Tiger the abruptly stopped and threw up his hands, shrugging at his surprise birdie, which moved him to five-under.

(Note: the videos which you can see on this page are from YouTube. For some reason, the video of this birdie was not posted by the PGA Tour to YouTube, but Tiger’s reaction is worth seeing. To do so, click here.)

Soon after the birdie, we moved down the fifth hole, once again reaching the green and finding a second row spot to see the group ahead putt, then watching Tiger pull his approach just off the left edge of the par-5 green, 120 feet from the pin in the center-left.  Tiger putted from off the green to seven feet, and made the birdie putt to move to six-under.

At this point, a message came up on the leaderboard which said “Alert: Tiger Woods is challenging the Sedgefield course record of 9-under par 61, he is 6-under par through 14 holes.”  Whoa.

While a similar message had appeared earlier when William McGirt was in a similar situation, it was more alarming when it was Tiger.  And while it was Tiger, one of the greatest athletes of all-time, his recent form didn’t suggest the possibility of that kind of history being made here.

On the par-4 sixth, Tiger hit the fairway, then hit his approach within five feet.  I knew the par-3 seventh hole should be a good place to watch Tiger, and there was a shortcut from the sixth fairway area over towards the seventh green.  As it turned out, Tiger missed the birdie putt, which I found out when the leaderboard on the seventh showed he remained six-under through 15 holes.

Watching the action on the seventh, as I was meeting a fellow South Carolinian on the steps of the bleachers behind the green, Tiger’s tee shot landed right in the center of the green, 33 feet from the hole, and he two-putted for par.

On the par-4 eighth, even without a very good vantage point, I knew Tiger’s tee shot was headed right of the fairway.  It was a good 20 yards to the right of the fairway, but on the side of the eighth where there are no fans.  His approach was hole-high, 18 feet away, after an excellent recovery shot, but he missed the birdie putt, settling for par.

We got stuck trying to move across the ninth fairway, but Tiger and his group had to walk right by on our side to cross a bridge, giving me my best photo opportunity since the driving range.  The Tour is very serious about prohibiting the use of cell phones and cameras on the course, but it is generally only enforced when players are about to hit a shot.  As Tiger walked by, I got a decent picture of him and his caddy, Joe LaCava, on my phone.

Tiger’s approach to the par-4 ninth short and right, 13 yards from the hole and about 6-7 yards off the green.  As we reached the ninth, we tried to find a good vantage point, but we eventually had to settle for a spot where we couldn’t see the hole due to a mound on the green.  I told Terri finding a good spot around that green had actually been an “impossible task”.

Tiger’s pitch went 11 feet past the hole (all I could tell was it was several feet by), but he made the putt to save par.  Throughout his career, Tiger has had a knack for making par putts on his final hole of the day, as if he gives every ounce of focus he has left to that putt and wills it into the hole.

As Tiger walked off the green, to a nice ovation from the crowd, he waved appreciatively to the crowd which had cheered him so much throughout the round.  And rightfully so, as the round he had put together added up to a 6-under par 64, the lowest score Tiger has shot in competition since 2013.

When Tiger finished his round, he was tied for third in the tournament.  By the end of the day, as everyone else finished their rounds, he was still in the top ten, with a very respectable position of tied for 7th.  Those who lead the tournament on Thursday (William McGirt, Erik Compton, and Tom Hoge in today’s case) don’t win as much as you might think, but the winner is very often someone who is in contention from the beginning.  Tiger certainly fits that mold.

The level of play I saw was very high, and not just from Tiger.  Matsuyama shot a 5-under 65, and Koepka shot a 3-under 67, with both playing the round without a bogey.  Tiger’s bogey at the 11th was the only bogey in the group all day, as they combined to make 15 birdies.  Tiger made seven of them, along with 10 pars and the lone bogey.

After the exceptional play from Tiger, I believe he can win the Wyndham Championship.  That doesn’t mean he will, but from what I saw today I believe his golf game has improved enough to where he can win this tournament, particularly having placed himself so well after the opening round.

I can also make this bold statement: after seeing Tiger play so well, I believe he can and will win a major championship in 2016.  Tiger is now healthy, and is now becoming much more comfortable with the tweaks that coach Chris Como has made in his golf swing.  A man who has won 14 major championships is naturally always a threat to win more, and he certainly can do it.  That being said, with today’s young, bold stars like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and others, it definitely won’t be easy.

After Tiger’s round was complete, we stayed around the ninth green to watch the next group of two-time major champion Martin Kaymer, former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, and former FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas finish their round. After a quick lunch, we went back to the 18th hole, which by this point had probably less than 100 people in the bleachers and skyboxes surrounding the green, and watched a few groups finish, including Bill Haas’s uncle Jerry Haas, the golf coach at Wake Forest.

We moved back to the ninth hole to watch some of the afternoon wave come through, including former Masters champion Adam Scott, former world number one Luke Donald, defending FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel, four-time major champion Ernie Els, and former Wyndham champions Davis Love III, Brandt Snedeker, Webb Simpson, and Camilo Villegas.

While these players might normally have had me mildly star-struck, after following Tiger for five hours, seeing these big names suddenly wasn’t quite as big of a deal.  Satisfied with seeing the bigger names in the afternoon wave make an appearance at the ninth, we left Sedgefield midway through the afternoon.

I had seen Tiger Woods play before, at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte in 2009.  There, however, Tiger and Phil Mickelson were playing in back-to-back groups on a Saturday, and following was impossible due to the size of the crowds.  The layout of the Quail Hollow course allowed us to move a couple of holes ahead of the marquee pairings and then watch them come through.

This was much better.  While the crowd was still very large, it was bearable, and I was able to follow Tiger for all eighteen holes at my “hometown tournament”.  That would have been excellent as it was, but the fact Tiger played practically like his old self in his best round of the season made it that much better.

You know I’ll be rooting for Tiger this weekend.  The exposure he could bring to the Wyndham and the Greensboro area if he even contends for a win would be enormous.  Should he win, we would get to watch him more in the FedEx Cup Playoffs starting next week.

But more than that, should Tiger find a way to win on Sunday, I could say I saw one of the greatest begin his comeback.  I could say I was there when he won his first tournament since 2013.

But even if Tiger’s week doesn’t develop into a victory, mine has still been made.  I followed Tiger Woods, perhaps the greatest golfer ever to play the game, at my “hometown tournament”, and I must say, it was a dream come true.

 

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