Golf was not a part of my life growing up at all. No one in my family had ever played or had any interest. I had only played the par 3 course by my house with friends a handful of times. Then came the 1996 US Amateur. It was the first golf tournament I ever watched on TV. It was awesome. Tiger was awesome and now I wanted to get good at golf and fist pump all over the place. Tiger was MJ cool. My whole family started playing avidly simply because of Tiger Woods.
Fast forward four years and I was living in Bradenton, FL. A group of about 30 of us had the opportunity to take a bus over to Orlando and “caddy” in the Squeeky Medlen Pro Am at Keene’s Pointe in honor of the deceased caddy. I say caddy in quotes because we would get to pick a pro, drive the cart with their clubs, fill their divots, and rake the bunkers. Cool. Easy enough. About halfway to Orlando, we pulled into a fast food restaurant and drew names out of a hat to see who got to pick their pro first. Low and behold, I got first or second pick (don’t remember which, but two guys to a group). I remember freaking out and calling my mom so excited. Tiger freakin’ Woods!!
Quite a few things stick out from that day that I will never forget. Some unfathomably awesome and some questionable. This seems like the Tiger we know 16 years later. Here are some of the memories…
1. Seeing him for the first time and immediately noticing how skinny he was in shorts. Wow.
2. He hit a 9 iron into the first hole that I swear to this day I haven’t seen a ball hit that high again in my life. Standard shot. 15 ft.
3. Sterling Sharpe was in our group, and he and Tiger were having long drive contests every hole for money. Sterling would win if he kept it in the fairway. Nice guy (even for a Packer.)
4. The first par 5, Tiger had 278 to the hole to an elevated green. He hit that punch 2 iron we’ve grown to love about 7 feet off the ground the entire way, and it was probably the coolest shot I’ve ever seen in my life. Standard shot. 18 ft.
5. The pace of play was not good. Since we were the last group, I think on about hole 11 Tiger putted out and asked me to throw the ball anywhere around the green. I obliged. He grabbed a wedge and pitched it 3 ft. This went on for about 15 minutes. I threw some to places so short sided that I’d be making triple from, and he would nip them right next to the hole. The small gathering of people watching were cheering like crazy with each bit of short game display. This was the coolest part of the day. People often forget, Tiger was Tiger because of what he could do inside 50 yards.
6. Tiger was very nice to me, but toward the back 9 you could tell he didn’t want to be there anymore. Keene’s Pointe was new at this time. A man walked up to Tiger and said, “Hey Tiger, I am a member here at Keene’s Pointe. How does it compare to Isleworth?” Tiger looked at him and said, “it doesn’t” and walked away. Ooooooook.
7. Walking up a fairway on the back 9, I found myself next to Tiger. It was Bay Hill week, which meant one thing, March Madness. Stanford was a 1 seed. I remember UNC was the 8 or 9 seed in their bracket. I asked Tiger about a potentially tough 2nd round match-up with UNC. He went on an expletive-laden rant about how bad UNC was and how they had no chance to beat Stanford. I was a teenager, I thought it was pretty cool he was a diehard. For the record, UNC upset Stanford in the 2nd round.
8. Toward the end of the round, I was raking a bunker after Tiger had splashed out a shot to gimme range. I was totally butchering it and hoping no one was noticing. As I looked up to get out of the bunker, Tiger was staring at me with a big smile and said “Jesus, that is not how to rake a bunker.” I still suck at raking bunkers, but I try harder now.
As soon as the last putt dropped on 18 and everyone shook hands that day, Tiger was whisked away so quickly you wouldn’t believe it. Vanished into thin air. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget, and I can’t believe how vividly the details are coming back to me 16 years later. I thought I had had the best day ever riding the bus back to Bradenton when one of my friends told me Fuzzy Zoeller had bought him a beer that day. Now that would have been sweet.