Imagine Tiger Woods alone on a practice green at a PGA TOUR event. He’s lagging 50-footers at dusk. A stream of golf fans is exiting the property. They’re five-wide as they navigate the path just beyond an arm’s reach from his backswing. The only obstacle is the thin rope that serves as a boundary, but all are oblivious that it’s him. None pause for a front-row perspective, much less stare as they stride by.
This is my first memory of seeing Woods in person. It was 1995. I was also leaving Cog Hill’s Dubsdread Course following a round of the Motorola Western Open that I was covering for a suburban newspaper. It may have even been Sunday night after Woods finished in a three-way share of 57th place, but that detail is sketchy and irrelevant. What’s remained crystal clear is my viewpoint for the surreal scene.
Possessing enough wherewithal to project how it might be portrayed, oh, say, in December of 2015, I moseyed over to his bag on the opposite side of the green. He was putting toward it in the kind of absence of light that would make anyone wonder why even try. Hovering calmly beside the bag was his father, Earl. “Pops” was engaged in a conversation with a gentleman sporting only a general-admission pass but with an evident abundance of real-time understanding of what he was witnessing.
How was I the only other?
Sure, Woods was only 19 years old, but as the throng strolled by blindly, it was in that sequence when I learned the epitome of what it meant to be a casual fan. At the very least, he was the two-time reigning U.S. Amateur champ practicing his craft with free admission to observe in the backyard of what is often labeled as one of the nation’s greatest sports towns, Chicago.
After uttering a subdued greeting against the faint tapping of a putter face, I kept quiet as Earl Woods mapped out Tiger’s upcoming schedule. The Scottish Open was on deck the following week; The Open Championship at St. Andrews immediately ensued. (Of course, Earl’s vision extended well beyond that July.) I don’t recall anything else that was said. After all, Tiger Woods was hiding in plain sight!
I waited for someone, anyone, to stop and watch. It wouldn’t be long before that kind of access would be at a premium everywhere he competed, but no one bit on the rare opportunity on this night.
As Tiger encroaches on a milestone birthday – the big 4-0 awaits on Dec. 30, maybe you’ve heard – it’s impossible not to allow the juxtaposition of then and now wash over in retrospect. As virtually every move since, “I guess, hello, world, huh?” up the road in Milwaukee the year after my brief tangent, has been documented, analyzed, reanalyzed and archived, I’ve appreciated the moment even more.
Woods won in his next trip to Cog Hill in 1997. He’d turn the track into one of his personal playgrounds, picking off a total of five victories and a pair of runner-up finishes. Expecting a similar result in his return to the PGA TOUR in 2016 (or whenever it happens) is foolish, but anything he accomplishes henceforth is gravy on a phenomenal career.
It’s been long averred that Woods’ body was always older than his age. While that’s probably true and it has likely shaved years off functional time to chase history, the silver lining is that he’s nearer the sunset at a younger age. Anyone who has already gone over the hill can understand the value of that feeling of fulfillment for one’s accomplishments.