Crouching Fans, Stalking Tiger (Woods)

There were no Tigger costumes, no WWF signs and no fans climbing trees.

But it didn’t matter, because the atmosphere was electric enough.

After I found that the next tournament stop for Tiger Woods following his landslide 2000 U.S. Open victory in Pebble Beach would be the Advil Western Open in Lemont, Illinois, I freaked. Here was an opportunity to drag a couple of friends along—and I had to, because Lemont is a good hour away from Chicago, but I had no car—and see what Tiger Mania was all about. It took a bit of convincing; after all, none of us had ever been to a golf tournament and could only imagine it being as exciting as watching the green fairway grass grow. But at the end of the day my friends Erik, Jenny and I could have cared less to notice that we had just spent seven consecutive hours at, of all places, a golf course on Sunday, July 9, 2000.

I will say, before I commence this Tiger tale, that when it comes to free sponsor goodies, golf tournaments beat tennis tournaments by a mile. During the car trip, I lamented the late opening time of my dorm dining hall (and thus, the lack of breakfast) and potentially absurd prices for water. Free parking and a $35 admission fee later, we tore through the white tents and emerged with free Tiger posters courtesy of Buick! Key chains! Advil (duh)! Chapstick! Soccer balls and other goodies obtained from signing up for credit cards…with fake names! (Mind you, that was NOT my idea but I played along. J ) And the best part, free bottled water and FREE WHEATIES WITH MILK. So we got our breakfast and more than we bargained for, as our goodies probably were worth the admission price alone.

Jenny suggested early on that to keep up with Tiger’s whereabouts, we map out a strategy. Rather than follow him from shot to shot and constantly play catch-up, we were to look at the course layout and camp out at all the even-numbered holes to guarantee good seats. It sounded logical. At the time.

We took our Indian-style perches well before the rest of the masses at hole No. 2, waiting for Tiger to tee off. Signs everywhere indicated that spectators should not take pictures, and – unlike tennis tournaments – fans actually adhered to this rule. Except for me, who had brought a camera and was not about to let any Kodak moment go by. However, I hadn’t banked on the number of security guards and volunteers stalking the place holding “QUIET PLEASE” signs. So each time, I had to make sure that the automatic flash was turned off. (After all, we have seen the number of times Tiges has gotten upset by camera clicks just as he’s about to tee off, and I didn’t want to join that exclusive club.)

Tiger hit his tee shot, and everyone oohed and aahed over the “whoosh” (or was it a Nike swoosh?) that his club made as it cut through the air. It was a quicker, stronger movement than any of his competitors and it drove the ball long. Too long. We craned our necks, wondering where the ball had landed. No one could tell. That’s when Jenny, Erik and I realized we had to re-map our strategy by going to the green. At least when Tiger was putting, we could actually SEE where the ball ended up.

A miscalculation of the map by Jenny landed us at hole No. 5, not 4. Rather than try to rectify the mistake, we just camped out where we could find space. This happened to be along the fairway, not the most ideal spot. Still, we didn’t want to move. Back at the tee, Tiger hit the ball. We saw the tiny golf ball become larger and larger…and head straight towards us. Suddenly, we could no longer see the ball, which was replaced by two loud cracks, the second of which was much louder then first. The ball had ricocheted off a tree several yards away from us, then hit a 60-something in the face. He’s bleeding, holding his nose as the rest of us wait with bated breath as security is getting him ice. Meanwhile, Tiger is walking up the fairway with his trademark toothy grin discernible from miles away. As he gets closer, though, someone points out the damage. “Really?” he asked, his face falling. This time it was his turn to cover his face. “Oh sh*t!” Tiger walked over, exchanged a few apologetic words, and shook his guy’s hand. After Tiger finished the 5th, he handed the victim one of his trademark Nike golf balls, prompting more than one of us to either say aloud or think aloud, ‘Why didn’t Tiger hit ME in the face??!” Or the more common high-pitched squeal with elongated vowels: ‘Wooowww, Tiii-gerr is sooo niiice!” If I hadn’t looked, I would have thought that the crowd would have been made up of gushing adolescent females.

Quite the contrary. As the gray clouds quickly cleared on what would become just Chicagoland’s second 90-degree day that summer, and the throngs of people became denser, an unfortunate, noticeable split between the crowd formed. On one hand, there was us, the “Tiger Crowd,” a diverse, boisterous group of folks of all races, ages, and both genders who went completely ga-ga whenever Tiger even moved a muscle. On the other hand, there was the “Non-Tiger” crowd – mostly Caucasian, older, and complete with lawn chairs and straw hats who stayed put at one chosen hole. Needless to say, it wasn’t too difficult to ascertain which crowd was making more noise. What wasn’t as fun was silently walking along the field with my friends, bags in tow, only to have several folks lounging in the lawn chairs turn and glare at us. Like it or not, Tiger still continues to attract non-golfers from a demographic typically disassociated with the “norm” – it’s a shame that some of these people saw it as a negative. And there wasn’t much they could do about it as the day got longer; after all, the Tiger Maniacs easily eclipsed the rest of the bunch.

So, from that fifth-hole moment on, it was sheer chaos. Jenny was dying to recount the story to anyone who would listen. Thing is, EVERYONE wanted to listen. “What happened at the fifth hole? I heard Tiger hit someone,” one guy said, and Jenny was more than happy to oblige to two 30-somethings who were literally hanging on all her words. At another hole, Tiger walked by and sneezed, and someone – who was NOT a kid – piped up in a kiddie voice, “Ti-gerr sneeezed!” That exclamation immediately made its way down the line of people like a high-pitched game of Telephone, as if it was the best gossip since Prince William. At still another hole, one man took a swig of beer as we discussed Tiger-watching strategy. “You really have to plan in advance. Tee, hole, tee, hole,” he said as we pondered how to get close to Tiger while maintaining our sanity. Next thing you know, that strategy is thrown out the window when you turn your head and see an army of ants following Tiger. Only as the dots become larger and larger do you realize that these swarms are actually thousands of human beings.

So, in the end, who cared if the Advil Western Open was a mere hiccup in a historic 2000, a forgotten event sandwiched between his U.S. and British Open triumphs? So what if his tie for 23rd place was his worst result in 10 1/2 months? Heck, this was Tiger. It was worth watching him whack the ball harder and cleaner than rest of the field. It was worth being a part of the camaraderie that is the “Tiger crowd.” It was even worth the endless walking, cutting across greens, and climbing fences to watch our beloved hero in action. Because with the illegal photos, sore feet, perspiration and dehydration, we’d gladly do it all over again.