4 observations from watching Tiger Woods up close for the first time

tiger woods smiles at the PGA Championship in a blue shirt and white hat

Tiger Woods on the practice range at the PGA Championship.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Working in golf is fun.

Traveling to work in golf? I’ll admit now: Slightly less fun.

My week began with a 4 a.m. alarm and six hours of travel, which normally would have been enough to put me in a bad mood. But not this time. I was giddy. Not only is this week’s PGA Championship my first time covering a tournament in person for GOLF, it’s also my first time attending a major championship for any reason. Sure, the pre-dawn flight from Boise to Louisville (via Minneapolis) was suboptimal, but I was getting paid to go to the PGA Championship. I would’ve taken a Greyhound.

From the window seat of the first leg of my Monday morning flight, I pondered the possibilities.

I get to watch Scottie Scheffler at the height of his powers.

I get to see Rory hit the ball a mile into the sky.

Maybe Brooks Koepka can go back-to-back.

I need to do everything I can to cherish this moment.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but seeing Tiger play in person didn’t really cross my mind. When I started playing golf, Tiger had just won his 14th major at the 2008 U.S. Open. His 15th major at the Masters in 2019 is one of the great sports memories of my life, but on the whole, I’ve watched him miss the cut more times than I’ve seen him win. During most of my golf-watching life, Tiger has been a mythical figure lurking mostly in the background, popping up every so often to remind everyone that he’s still here, and he’s still the best ever to do it. 

And then I saw him stroll into the press tent on Tuesday and it hit me.

I’m an idiot. I have a chance to watch the GOAT. The guy who took the sport I love to heights nobody thought possible.

Nothing is guaranteed in life. Tiger and his lengthy list of career-altering injuries are proof of that. And forget Tiger — this could be my last major for all I know. I didn’t want to watch him, I had to.

So I trekked out early Wednesday morning through the muddy slopes of Valhalla to do just that, and I came away with a few observations from the experience.

4 observations from watching Tiger Woods up close

1. He’s the epitome of a “grinder”

Tiger has been here since Sunday. Including the scouting trip last week and the three other events he’s played at Valhalla, he already knows every blade of grass on the golf course.

He says it takes him two hours to get ready and two hours to power down every single time he plays. With that in mind, it’s not a stretch to say he’s been up at 4 a.m. every day this week (so much for my whining). The steep land movement around the course makes navigating the place an onerous walk for even a healthy twentysomething. I can only imagine what it’s doing to his right leg and fused back. So why not take it easy today before four straight days of 18 holes? Because he’s Tiger Woods.

He spent close to two hours on the range on Wednesday morning, including more than 40 minutes hitting 10-footers. Then he went out and played a couple practice holes to get a feel for the softness of the course after a few days of rain. He can’t help it, he loves the grind. It’s inspiring to watch and I’m grateful to witness his legendary competitiveness up close this week.

2. His swing is smoooooth

For a guy with a fused back and more metal in him than my 90-year-old grandfather, it’s striking to see how smooth Tiger’s swing is. I’ve seen so many older videos of him attacking the ball with speed and power. His injuries have robbed him of the ability to do that, but all those years of accrued golfing wisdom have gifted him some of the dreamiest swing tempo I’ve ever seen.

After the awe wore off, I became filled with jealousy watching Woods hit irons. His idyllic transition and smooth wrist flick will occupy my mind every time I swing a club. When I return to Boise from Louisville, I know I’ll spend hours on the range trying to copy it, surely to the detriment of my own game. Nobody can copy Tiger. Fans and professionals alike have been trying for years with zero success. But that won’t stop me from trying, because that’s what watching Tiger does to a person.

3. He handles fame like a science

Tiger has more fans following him around at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday than most players see all week. He’s played golf in front of millions of people throughout his career. The problem, though, is that the crowds never get smaller. Everyone wants an autograph, a picture, a glimpse of the most famous golfer ever.

The ceaseless crowds would send me into an expletive-filled tirade in about 10 minutes, but he seemed to handle it with ease, hardened over years of eyeballs fixated on his every move.

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He doesn’t acknowledge the litany of hoots and hollers and autograph requests, except for a rare nod of the head or slight wave of the hand. He seems a perfectly calculated mix of grateful for the support but laser-focused on the goal ahead — and rest assured, it is calculated.

It’s still plenty enough to send the masses into a tizzy. The Tiger Woods gave them a head nod, a story they will surely tell for years to come. And if I’m being honest with myself, so would I.

4. There are still glimpses

The highlight of my time with Tiger was watching him play the 9th hole. The short par-4 is by no means a difficult hole, and will probably yield a plethora of birdies this week. But man, he played it perfectly. The sound of his drive pierced through the trees as it floated down the middle of the fairway. He made short work of the wedge shot that followed, sticking it within 10 feet of the pin, tempo on full display. Easy birdie. 

It was a glimpse of the Tiger that won everything. A player with elite precision and execution. I always thought his “I’m here because I believe I can win” talk was just lip service. Deep down there’s no way he actually believes that, right? It’s just a mind game.

Now I’m not so sure. Every golfer knows that feeling. After playing a hole perfectly, you walk away thinking that golf actually is conquerable. That’s the feeling that keeps us coming back for more. Tiger still experiences this now, even with his health issues. You can see it on his face.

He knows the game is still within him, and if he can find the consistency? Who knows. Do I think he can win again? I’m pessimistic. Stringing 72 holes of good golf together seems unlikely. But mine or anyone else’s thoughts on his chances don’t matter. He believes he can win, and his opinion is the only one that matters.

I learned plenty of lessons from following Tiger this morning, but if there’s one that will stick with me long after the week is done, it’s his unwavering belief. It might have even made a believer out of me.

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