PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The crowd didn't like Tiger Woods early in the round on Saturday. Early on, Woods might even have agreed. He bogeyed his second hole. Bogeyed his third hole. By the time I caught up with Woods on No. 4, he was 10 shots off the lead and talking angrily to himself -- and the U.S. Open crowd was talking angrily to him.
"I hate you, Tiger!" one guy screamed as Woods walked past us on No. 4.
|Tiger Woods' shot from behind the tree elicits a huge roar from the crowd. (Getty Images)|
"Na-na-na-not No. 1 after this week," the guy yelled, referencing Phil Mickelson's ability to overtake Woods atop the world rankings if he wins the 110th U.S. Open.
That was how Woods' round started. This is how it ended:
With the loudest roar of the day.
It happened after Woods' second shot on the par-5 finishing hole. He was behind that damn tree in the fairway, 260 yards from the green, and he fired a 3-wood out over the Pacific Ocean, cut it back into the wind, and watched it land on the green and roll 15 past the hole. A two-putt gave him his third consecutive birdie for a 5-under 66, tied for the lowest round of the tournament and five shots behind leader Dustin Johnson, but it was the second shot out over the Pacific that brought the noise. I was greenside when it happened, and the reaction was thunderous. CBSSports.com golf columnist Steve Elling was on the 10th hole -- the absolute farthest spot on the course from No. 18, roughly a mile away -- and he heard the roar. Not just the noise. He heard the roar.
There must have been 10,000 people surrounding the green. I didn't hear one of them yell, "I hate you, Tiger!" But I did hear a woman scream, "We love you, Tiger!" And I did hear a man yell, "Tiger, you're the greatest!" And then several people applauded. The appreciation of Tiger was such that, as he stood with his putter over his attempt at eagle, a baby started to coo. This man next to me, swear to God, glared at the baby and growled out a "shhhhh!"
The lesson I learned from all this? People want to love Tiger again. Maybe not as much as they loved him before -- maybe that's impossible after a sex scandal that hasn't stopped generating headlines seven months later -- but as much as they can love him. But to love Tiger they need to see him play his best, and then they can embrace him for his ferocity on the course, if not for his fidelity off it. That's what happened Saturday.
Like him or not, golf needs Woods. He isn't the cottage industry here -- golf is. Woods is Big Business. Television ratings remain higher for events he plays than events he doesn't, and they are higher still when he's in contention. Watch the ratings for Sunday's fourth round. They'll be enormous. The sport is more fun when he's at his best. That's not just me talking -- that's the crowd on Saturday.
Well, they weren't saying it so much as they were murmuring it. That was the reaction after Woods' birdie at No. 17 was posted on the enormous scoreboard around the 18th green. It was his second consecutive birdie, and it drew him to even par, five shots behind Johnson at that moment. When Woods' birdie went up, the crowd didn't cheer -- it gasped. The sensation was visceral, and the gasp can be translated like so: Tiger's back, and we're watching it happen!
On the green at No. 18 were Luke Donald and Fred Funk, but the crowd didn't care about that. Heads were turned toward the tee box nearly 600 yards away, and Woods' tee shot into the fairway drew a bigger reaction than the putts of Donald and Funk. When Funk tapped in for par at No. 18, a fan yelled over the polite applause, "OK, it's Tiger time!" And that drew more applause than Funk's putt.
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Then came Woods' sensational shot to the green, and the ovation heard for miles, and when Woods was finished, he wasn't merely relieved to be in the hunt for a major following four dismal events that included a withdrawal at The Players Championship and a failure to make the cut at Quail Hollow. Nope. Woods was thinking about winning this thing.
That's why, after Woods was brought into the media tent for his post-round press conference, he wasn't listening to USGA official Beth Murrison's glowing introduction. Even as Murrison was describing his "brilliant 66 today," Woods was leaning back in his chair, looking behind Murrison's head at the television screen in the corner. The screen showed Dustin Johnson on the 12th hole. Woods was staring at Johnson like a lion stares at a wildebeest.
Eventually, though, Woods turned his attention to the press corps and explained his mastery of the golf ball. When Woods struggles with his ball striking, he often struggles with distance -- his "numbers," as he calls it. On a bad day, his 7-iron will go 10 yards farther than normal, or 10 yards shorter. Whatever it is, it's the difference between having a birdie putt from pin high ... or a chip.
"It feels good to be able to control my ball, especially in this wind," Woods said. "I was landing the ball on my numbers. Whether it was into the wind or downwind, I was landing the ball on my numbers."
Woods was shaping fades or draws, and he was leaving himself birdie putts uphill. That's a key on Pebble Beach's greens, featuring poa annua grass that grows so unevenly -- and so fast -- that it literally changes the putting surface from morning to afternoon. On Thursday, Woods called the greens "awful." On Friday, the USGA bristled at those comments. On Saturday, Woods didn't back down.
"A lot of players felt the same," Woods said. "They just didn't say it."
With uphill putts, Woods was able to make aggressive runs at the hole, taking the poa's inconsistent length out of the equation. He birdied eight holes, seven of them on uphill putts and one of them -- a 20-footer on No. 17 -- that went downhill and shocked Woods by falling into the cup.
"Not a putt I was expecting to make," he said. "Wasn't even trying to make it."
But this is what happens when Woods is going good. Putts fall. Ratings rise.
And you love him like nothing happened.