ATLANTA — Tiger Woods called it a stampede. It felt more like The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.
Five years ago, as Woods marched downhill to the 18th green on the verge of his 80th PGA Tour title, 1,877 days since he hoisted his last trophy at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. The ropes opened behind him, and a sea of humanity fueled by alcohol blew past troopers and knocked over volunteer marshals to celebrate the long-awaited victory as if attending Tiger Woods-tock.
I was traipsing along in Tiger’s gallery that memorable day when it turned into bedlam, and I remember flashing my inside the ropes badge just before an officer built like a linebacker was about to flatten me Adam Hadwin-style, but somehow he pulled up just short and I survived.
I have so many fond memories of one the coolest tournaments I’ve ever had the pleasure of covering. I couldn’t help chuckling when after Woods rolled in his fourth birdie in five holes on Saturday, NBC’s Roger Maltbie sidled up to him and said, “You play a lot like that golfer Tiger Woods.”
Woods broke his concentration for a moment to share a smile with Maltbie before continuing his assault on par.
Woods grabbed the lead in the opening round with a 65, and golf fans were on red alert that something special was in the making. Former NBA All-Star Vince Carter walked the front nine inside the ropes with Tiger’s group on Saturday while former Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, whose home backs up to the fifth tee at East Lake, climbed out of his La-Z-Boy and poked his head over a mesh fence to watch Woods blast a drive 320 yards, stuff a wedge to 7 feet and can the putt for birdie.
His Comeback Tour after undergoing a fourth back surgery that fused a vertebrae in April 2017 had been nothing short of miraculous and the faithful showed their enthusiasm for Tiger from the moment he arrived on the golf course with a 3-stroke lead over Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose. It was just the first hole, but when Tiger’s 10-foot birdie putt rattled in, it was like a roundhouse right that floored McIlroy. He limped home in 74.
Woods led by five at the turn, but it got a little dicey near the end after Billy Horschel posted 9 under and Tiger’s lead was cut to two. On 18, there was still the formality of getting out of a greenside bunker, but for the Tiger faithful at East Lake, he had already done it: He’d made Sundays great again.
The whole scene was too good to be true, but it happened in front of our eyes.
Fans lined tee boxes and fairways elbow to elbow, 10, 15-deep, and all day long, loving superlatives fluttered around the fairways like confetti. “It’s your time,” a woman yelped. “You’ve got this, Tiger,” a man screamed. When Tiger birdied the 13th hole, the crowd circling the green exploded. Moments later, a second eruption of cheers emerged from the Grey Goose 19th hole and other hospitality tents as the TV delay showed the putt drop.
The crowd swelled as Woods grew closer to victory. Fans climbed trees, and dads placed daughters on their shoulders for a better vantage point. They exhorted as if at a religious revival, breaking into spontaneous chants of “U-S-A” and “Ti-ger, Ti-ger.”
When fans broke through the ropes, it was the culmination of an incredible celebration of golf, and it reminded Woods of his rookie year in 1997 at the Western Open in Chicago coming down the last hole.
“That was a little bit like that, but not this fevered pitch,” Woods said during his press conference.
Standing on the 18th green after the trophy ceremony, Woods wore the biggest smile on his face. NBC’s Dan Hicks turned to a bunch of us writers and said, “Did you ever see a scene like that?”
Who knew then that this was just an appetizer to what Tiger would do eight months later down the road in Augusta.