SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Tiger Woods returned to the Phoenix Open and received cheers, boos and gasps.
All on one hole.
There is rarely a dull moment with golf’s biggest star, especially at the PGA Tour’s rowdiest venue. Even though Woods has played at TPC Scottsdale only three times, what defines his experience at the Phoenix Open is not a trophy, rather it’s some beer, a boulder, an orange and a gun.
So a typical pro-am Wednesday was anything but that — especially at the par-3 16th hole.
Woods managed to deliver another memory. His 9-iron was just left of the pin when it turned enough left that it tumbled into a bunker. The cheers turned to boos, and Woods tugged the bill of his cap in mock shame. Seconds later, the cheers returned from the full house.
And then the gasp — instead of blasting out of the sand, Woods bladed the shot over the green and into the front row of the gallery. A spectator posted a vine of the bladed bunker shot:
It was quite a scene, and this was not lost on John Wood, the caddie for Hunter Mahan, who was in the group ahead of Woods on the 16th. The caddie looked around at the enclosed arena, where it was hard to find an empty seat. And this was for a pro-am.
”This is usually about one-third full,” Wood said. ”I have never seen it this packed on a Wednesday. Never.”
He looked over his shoulder at Woods on the tee box and pointed his thumb in that direction.
Record crowds are expected this week at the TPC Scottsdale, though the forecast is for cold and rain on Saturday, the biggest day. The Super Bowl is in town. Woods is playing for the first time in 14 years. The field includes Phil Mickelson, Masters champion Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
All eyes, however, are on Woods. There’s too much history with him, even at a tournament he rarely plays.
Of the three aces Woods has made as a pro, none gets replayed as much as his debut in the Phoenix Open in 1997. When the ball disappeared into the cup, it set off a celebration so wild that fans began throwing beer cups onto the tee. Woods was so excited he missed the high-five with Omar Uresti.
”Then on top of that, just smelling and hearing the beer hit behind me on the tee box,” he said. ”The more eerie part was when we were playing 17 and 18, everybody didn’t really care. They were walking in, because they had seen what they wanted to see and 16 was empty. So we looked back on 16. You see all these beer cups everywhere on the tee box, and probably maybe an eighth of the people there.”
Two years later, Woods had a chance to win while playing the in the final group with Rocco Mediate. What stood out that day was a tee shot left into the desert scrub and his ball landing just short of a waist-high boulder. It might have been the heaviest loose impediment ever moved – with help. Woods summoned help from the gallery, and they heaved with all their might to get the boulder out of the way of his swing on the par-5 13th.
”I thought it was lighter than it was,” Woods said. ”I thought I could move it. Evidently it took like five other dudes to do it.”
He added a twist to the tale this week. They moved it the wrong way.
”They moved it in the direction which I didn’t want to have it moved,” he said. ”So that means I had to start the ball off to the right, because I hit the ball in the right bunker. But I wasn’t going to have them go back in there in the cactus and move it back the other way.”
Later in the day, a fan who had been heckling Woods was found to have a gun in his fanny pack. The gun was registered. Woods never felt threatened, though it let to headlines as far away as New Jersey and Britain.
The final year in 2001 was thought to be the final straw. Woods finished 15 shots behind the runaway Mark Calcavecchia, but a young fan threw an orange onto the green as Woods was getting ready to putt. Those close to Woods said that was a big reason why he never returned until this year. There were other factors, such as the appearance money he used to get for going to Dubai and then Abu Dhabi, along with the extended winter break that meant also skipping Kapalua.
He’s back in Phoenix, and the buzz is louder than ever. Woods didn’t make a hole-in-one on the 16th hole. He hit into a bunker. No one showered the tee box with beer cups. There were no high-fives. But as he was playing the 17th hole, fans began filing out of the bleachers behind the green, and the front row of stands were half-empty.
They saw what they wanted.
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