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In Tiger’s return at Tiger’s tournament, he’s the only one who really matters

December 1, 2017

NASSAU, Bahamas — So much for a calm, quiet holiday season. The Great Tiger Woods is back in town.

Golf’s main event returned Thursday and provided much of the same show its fans have grown so desperate for, shooting three under in his first tournament round since fusion back surgery. This fist-pumping, birdie-making, palpitation-inducing circus has no comparison in this game, and possibly even in sports. Steph Curry was tweeting about it. So was Michael Phelps. Same with Bo Jackson and more than a dozen PGA Tour pros.

The collective obsession with a battered 41-year-old golfer — in success or in failure — begs the question: Why are we infatuated? Because the man means something to everyone, and everything to some, like those actually here on site at a tiny event…in the Bahamas…on a Thursday…in late November.

Go ahead and ask yourself — would you have toiled through a 10-hour commute from Calgary, like Ryan Annesley did?

“I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone,” Annesley said, proudly sporting a red Make Sundays Great Again T-shirt. “See the family and see Tiger.”

His decision was easier than most given his parents live on the island, but Annesley, 35, took off work nonetheless. He made the 10-hour jaunt from western Canada on Tuesday and will stay through the weekend. He’ll continue sporting the red shirt, for his friends and family watching at home, though they’ll have to spot him in the biggest gallery on the course — by a factor of 10.

Maybe 80 yards from Annesley, on the other side of a rocky sand dune, the best golfer in the world and the reigning U.S. Open champion walked up to the 16th green. (We’ll keep the other players nameless, because this week they essentially are.) “There are other groups out here with some of the best players in the world,” Annesley said. “But no one cares!”

It’s true. During a week in which much was unknown, the most obvious truth is that only one player here matters. The only proof that Tommy Fleetwood played golf Thursday was that spectators saw him tee off on the 1st hole and tap in for par on the last. Somewhere in the middle he worked his way into leading the tournament.

One hour before his round, as Woods moved from the putting green to the chipping area, the 100-or-so-strong Tiger mob pivoted. They stood in place and turned their bodies as The Great Tiger Woods walked by, eyes locked on him. Then they shuffled — maybe 20 feet — across a cart path, like a huddled mass of penguins, stopping only when they ran into the roped boundary.

Minutes later, as Woods made his way to the practice range, they pivoted again, almost zombie-like until one fan from the crowd said, “Good morning, Tiger.” It was Bill Stark, an old friend of Earl Woods and easily the only penguin in the group that could make The Great Tiger Woods stop on a dime and give him a hug.

Woods was surprised to see Stark, who resides some 2,500 miles away in Southern California, but it’s no coincidence he’s here. Stark, who’s in his 70s, booked his flight, sat through a six-hour layover in Phoenix and took a red-eye to Nassau. On Thursday he and his son-in-law trudged around all 18 holes in 80-plus-degree heat, proudly sporting their Tiger Woods-branded hats.

“He has an excited tone right now,” Stark said of Woods, who he’s watched play for more than 35 years. That has Stark jazzed. The smiling Tiger, the birdie-making Tiger, the drive-it-320-yards and strut off the tee box Tiger — it has everyone excited, even Tour pro Bryson DeChambeau. DeChambeau might normally be recognized as one of the 200 best golfers on the planet, but on Thursday he was one of about 200 avid fans following The Great Tiger Woods in action.

The group will probably double in size if the show continues this weekend and Woods stays in contention. If we weren’t on an island, that 200 might swell to 2,000. Maybe even 4,000 or 10,000. They’ll all know his score, where he sits on the leader board and whether or not he was happy with his last tee shot.

And they’re not leaving his side to watch anyone else.