As Woods makes his fifth start of the season Thursday at the 110th U.S. Open, examples of gallery grousing and heckling, up close and personal, have barely amounted to a discordant peep of discontent.
Outside the ropes, watching him wriggle in person has provided an odd educational subplot to the tournament proper, largely from a sociological standpoint. Sure, fabled golf scribe Dan Jenkins pronounced him “graveyard dead” in a recent column, but the cadaver palaver has been almost nil whenever Woods has faced live galleries.
Dead man walking? It’s closer to rocking.
After watching bits and pieces of every official round Woods has logged to date in his comeback, including snippets of his pro-ams and practice, it’s clear that most critical gallery blowback has been drowned out by the same waves of shock and awe that have greeted him over his entire career.
Off the course, waves of critics, fans and disillusioned parents have grilled him over the details of his sex scandal, which have tainted him forever in the eyes of some. He’s lost millions in endorsement earnings and his public-approval rating likely never will recover. But an interesting phenomenon has taken root at Woods’ tournaments, where fans seem to swoon as ever before, to rework a phrase.
“It’s easy to criticize from afar,” said Hunter Mahan, who played two rounds with Woods at the Players Championship and found the fan negativity almost non-existent. “But then when you get up close, it’s almost like a panic sets in.”
The ears have it: Like deer in the headlights, the galleries still freeze and fawn in the presence of Tiger — at least, whenever he passes near.
Indeed, the past three months have produced the Tiger Twist: He has been buried with bulldozers in the court of public opinion, but whenever Woods is eyeballed in the flesh, most fans still gush like an oil spill.
The paradox is almost funny. It took a few weeks to digest, but watching Woods live has become akin to being seated in a restaurant when some celeb like Axl Rose walks in and plops down in a neighboring booth. All of a sudden, customers forget that he’s one of the most unstable rock stars of all time, past his prime and sullied by old allegations of drug and physical abuse — they can’t clamber over the seatbacks to get his autograph fast enough.
They are star-struck, if not dumbstruck. Woods authored the worst scandal in the game’s history, but if there was ever a doubt, he has proved that the cult of celebrity even extends to golf — probably for the first and only time.
The live feedback is a jagged contrast to the general whipping he has absorbed behind the anonymity of computer chat rooms, story postings or fan polls. Earlier this month, the annual Sports Q Scores, which rank athletes based on fan approval, revealed that Woods has fallen off the face of the Earth relative to his former popularity.
He skidded from No. 1 to 25th and isn’t even the most popular golfer anymore, having been passed by 80-year-old Arnold Palmer. Those polled who expressed a dislike for Woods more than doubled.
On the course, though, the heckling has been sporadic, and it’s not just the you-da-man crowd that has let him off the hook. If there has been a change in the demographics of Woods’ galleries, which remain filled with women and kids, it’s hard to tell.
Perhaps Stewart Cink, a major-championship winner himself, nailed it in March, before Woods had made his first 2010 appearance. Cink predicted that, while there would be awkward moments, fan fallout would be minimal because catcalls and taunts aren’t part of the game’s culture.
“Besides, how many fans are going to spend $50 on a ticket to go heckle somebody?” he said.
Not many, apparently. Woods was audibly razzed at least twice at the Quail Hollow Championship, got heckled by a young Phil Mickelson fan at the Players Championship and was derisively called “Cheetah” by a man in the gallery at the Memorial. Unflattering airplane banners have flown overhead at the Masters and Players Championships. Otherwise, fans have generally stomped all over each other to soak in the aura, dazzled by sheer proximity.
Woods has done plenty to help keep the unwashed wolves at bay. During his practice rounds at his post-hibernation debut in Augusta, Woods made an uncharacteristic point of reaching out to fans, engaging them in conversation, occasionally posing for photos and signing autographs, trying to rebuild the bridge he had napalmed. He waxed several times to the press about his reception, though it was tepid at best.
For a guy who made all the wrong moves earlier, the fan salute represented a shrewd P.R. move, intentional or not. By publicly and repeatedly thanking the gallery for embracing him warmly — whether it was true or otherwise — he effectively defanged many of the heretics who might have ambushed him at subsequent tour stops. Well played, Woodrow.
Personally, it brings to mind the scenario surrounding Ray Lewis, the NFL linebacker who was involved in a double homicide at the 1990 Super Bowl. The following fall, I was covering a preseason game in Baltimore, his first appearance before fans since his arrest. When Lewis ran onto the field, the crowd went nuts.
Afterward, I asked Lewis whether he was surprised by the raucous reception, given the background. He had a decidedly feral look on his face.
“Why wouldn’t they [cheer]?” he said.
Uh, because they have a conscience? But that’s football, a team sport in which people root for the uniform as much as anything, where Attila the Hun and Lee Liberace would get cheered by Raiders fans if they could connect on a 15-yard slant pattern. Golf is a decidedly individual sport where decorum supposedly reigns. Nobody hides behind a helmet or jersey number, either.
Indeed, that’s exactly what has ruled the day, sprinkled with dashes of outright idolatry. In April, while standing under the famed oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse, Woods walked briskly through a gantlet of bejeweled fans and well-heeled club members as he strode to the first tee for his first round since November. His reception was not exactly robust, but it was far more upbeat and polite than many expected, nonetheless. A prominent sports agent was nearby, and we struck up a conversation.
“What has he done to deserve that applause, exactly?”
“Hide for the past five months?”
“Evade the police?”
“Show up to play?”
That’s when the Tiger Twist theory first took root. His aura might have changed, but it’s still palpable, especially for folks who see Woods play once a year — or once in a lifetime, which is often the case at a major championship like the U.S. Open. At the Players, a gaggle of 30-something women watched as Woods passed by the ropes between holes in the second round, a smile on his face since he’d just made a birdie.
The five women, overdressed in skirts and high heels, all but swooned. Generally, women reacted the most negatively to the Woods philandering scandal, but not this particular cluster, when placed in proximity to the world No. 1. By the way, I spotted wedding rings on the hands of at least two of them.
“You know, he was smiling at us,” one of them joked to the others.
Then again, maybe he was.
“There’s no doubt, people still want to be around him,” Mahan said. “To watch him play, to get his autograph. I don’t think much has changed there.”
Which at this point means it probably never will.