Three (strange) Minutes with Tiger

Tiger Golf CrowdIf you’ve been to a PGA Tour event, you know it’s next to impossible to get an up-close view of Tiger Woods. You might wriggle your way to within 40 feet of a tee box or green, but unless you’re taller than most you’ll have to look through the backs of people stacked ten deep just to get a glimpse of the side of his leg. As I rode the shuttle bus in to see Thursday’s round at the 2009 Quail Hollow Championship, I decided I would use a little strategery to increase my chances of seeing the world’s number one golf swing at point blank. Point blank is what I got, and a bit more.

PGA tour stats show that Tiger Woods misses 36% of his fairways, and if you watch golf on TV, you know that when he misses he misses right just about every time. So, as Tiger played the 8th, I staked out some real estate on the right side of the 9th fairway (Tiger’s 18th for the day), about 300 yards from the tee. I planted myself on the rope and waited, free and clear of the masses.

I wasn’t able to catch site of the ball off the tee, but body language alone was enough to know that it wasn’t good. Just when I began contemplating the notion that my absurd calculus might actually turn out to be well-founded, “thump, clang, plop.” Tiger’s Nike 1 bounded off the turf, ricocheted off the leg of a lawn chair, and came to rest in the rough literally five feet in front of me. Merry Christmas.

The throngs rushed in behind me once the word got out, but my elbows were already sharpened – no one was getting in front of Dan, not today. A jacked, triangular Tiger made his way up the fairway and sidled up to his ball as caddie Steve Williams paced off the yardage back out in the middle of the fairway. This is when things got strange. “I told you I’d finish under par. I told you I’d finish under par.” Not sure if he was talking to me, I glanced up and caught his eyes tracking something behind me as he muttered. I spun around to find an elderly man passing by, dazed and oblivious, as if he were looking for his parked car on the side of the 9th fairway. He couldn’t be talking to that guy. Really? With clenched teeth, and eyes as if he were about to eat the poor gray man, Tiger murmured one more time, “I told you I’d finish under par.” I couldn’t decide if I was witnessing the inner-workings of a competitive genius or an episode of “You Got Punked.”

We’re all familiar with the focused, furrowed intensity of Nicklaus, the wild determination of McEnroe, the “don’t mess with me” swagger of Jordan. All great athletes have their “zone,” as they call it. It’s what makes them special. But this was oddly different. Something about it took me back to the grade school playground, where kids learned to measure their self-esteem in dares won. I told you I could swing higher than you. I’ve never pretended to read people’s souls, but looking back now I can’t help but wonder if Tiger was fighting demons of some kind.

Or maybe this was just his way of firing himself up for a run-of-the-mill 6-iron from 190. If so, it worked. Now, I know you’ve all hit a perfect 6-iron before. I know you know what it sounds like when you absolutely nut one. I promise you – you have never heard anything like this in your life. Think hammer smashing egg, then multiply that by 50. That’s the sound of a Tiger Woods 6-iron from point blank range. I won’t forget it.

The Nike missile pierced the air, floated over the green for what seemed like an eternity, and then dropped like a stone to 15 feet. As the crowd around the green erupted, Tiger stomped his divot down and gave one last under-the-breath confirmation of his freaky resolve: “Perfect.”

Damn right that was perfect. Everything about it was perfectly spectacular, perfectly awe-inspiring, and perfectly weird.

Every recent revelation about Tiger reaffirms that I really don’t understand the universe this guy lives in. In retrospect, three strange minutes in the presence of Tiger Woods, in his arena, is enough for me to wonder if any of us are really prepared to.

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