The Tiger Woods effect, to quote a favorite Seinfeld line, is real and it is spectacular. Even Elvis was in the building to see the latest Tiger Woods comeback tour when he threatened to win for the first time in five years at the Valspar Championship.https://twitter.com/AdamSchupak/status/972895048948965376
It’s funny how fast we forget how much he means to the game. Davis Love III told me that Tiger’s first appearance in Palm Harbor, Fla., a sleepy resort town near Tampa, caused the first traffic jam he’d ever been stuck in leaving the tournament. So many fans jammed the first tee that unless you grabbed a spot an hour ahead of time you couldn’t get within 100 yards of the rope line for his opening tee shot. Fans were packed 10-15 deep, leading Jordan Spieth to compare the atmosphere to a major championship.
The swarming crowds in Los Angeles and three different Florida cities where Tiger played in March were large enough to disrupt cell service. The Smart Phone has come a long way since Tiger suffered his various back injuries and was sidelined for back surgeries, the fourth of which fused a vertebrae in April 2017. The PGA Tour relaxed its cell phone policy and it has sparked a new era of watching Woods. When he tugged his tee shot into the pine trees on the first hole of Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course to start the third round, I snapped a photo of a sea of fans armed with cell phones taking pictures and video. It looked like it was a page out of Where’s Waldo?
What a scene at the first hole when @TigerWoods drove it in the woods. #WheresTiger pic.twitter.com/xxiFHGyEmP
— Adam Schupak (@AdamSchupak) March 10, 2018
Tour pro Charley Hoffman was paired with Woods in the featured group in San Diego when Woods made his triumphant return at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. Walking down the fairway, Woods said to him, “Dang, I forgot how many idiots were out here watching golf.”
“Well, they weren’t all here until you came back,” Hoffman replied.
I’m used to having angry fans complain that I’m blocking their view as I stand inside the ropes, but the new complaint is that I photo-bombed their selfie with Woods. Grown men and women are as giddy as school kids at recess to see him play again. Roger Maltbie summed up perfectly the current lovefest for Woods.
“There was always the Tiger mania, the electricity, the buzz that no one else could generate,” Maltbie said. “But there is a level of adoration and love out there now. They truly miss this guy. It is more like an Arnold Palmer crowd, if you know what I’m saying. It is a change in the atmosphere, but still plenty of excitement. If you are a golfer, it is fun to watch.”
And if you’re a reporter covering Tiger mania like me, it means you better get used to tracking his every move. That means live tweeting his 6:50 a.m. pro-am round and hanging on his every word at his presser post-round. The Valspar had to reconfigure its media center to accommodate all the extra credential requests when Woods committed to the tournament. Tournament organizers also added 30 extra shuttles buses, 90 more port-o-lets, and an extra admission gate. No one else draws the crowds like Woods.
Several national papers, including The Washington Post, pulled their reporters off baseball spring training assignments in Florida and sent them to weigh in on a much bigger story: Is Tiger back? Mark Cannizaro, the longtime golf writer for The New York Post, said he booked a flight to Tampa during Friday’s second round of the Valspar Championship on his United Airlines App as soon as Woods canned a par putt late in his round and lifted his putter to the sky like old times. Yes, reporters suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out) too.
The only downside to Tiger’s return is he can be the equivalent of a total eclipse on the rest of the tournament. Number of media outside of NBC and PGA Tour Radio commentators assigned to follow Patrick Reed’s group as he attempted to win the Valspar? Zero. That was the same number that traipsed after the leaders when they teed off Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Only one other writer bailed on Woods with me after he hooked his drive OB on 16 to pickup eventual winner Rory McIlroy and see him chip in for birdie at 15. But the best part of this latest Woods comeback is no chip-yips, no rounds in the 80s, and it doesn’t have that sad feeling of watching a washed up Willie Mays play out the string with the New York Mets. Woods appears to be healthy, his swing speed rejuvenated, his short game sharp, and the pursuit of 19 majors reborn. As his father, Earl, used to say, “Let the legend grow.” I can’t wait to see what he’s got in store for his next act.