As I pulled up to the iron-gated entrance, a man in a dark-blue uniform emerged from a small brick hut. The badge on his chest was a flimsy gold star pinned under block letters that spelled SECURITY. “This is a private community,” he barked. Undaunted, I tried to explain that I’d flown a thousand miles to interview the hydrant that took down the greatest golfer who ever lived.
“We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Tiger’s crash,” I pleaded.
“Better get yourself one those helicopters the paparazzi use,” the human guard dog howled, cracking himself up as he walked back to his post. “Besides, that hydrant’s been gone for months. Try the junkyard.”
By mid-afternoon, the trail had led to a smelly, cluttered lot on the north end of town – let’s just say they don’t toss 25-year-old refrigerators in a bin next door to the Magic Kingdom. Stacks of beat-up old Pontiacs, dumpsters full of useless metal ... and just off a dirt path in an area full of dog cages and busted picnic tables, there sat a fire hydrant, its mangled lid hanging from a chain, its squat round frame streaked in black paint.
And you thought Woods took a tumble. “Pretty bleak, huh?” the hydrant moaned, as if he knew exactly why I’d come to see him. “From the nicest neighborhood in central Florida to this! Hey buddy, you got a cigarette?”
I told him I didn’t smoke, then introduced myself. “Call me Harvey,” the hydrant replied. “As I was telling the reporter from the National Enquirer yesterday, I don’t have a whole lot to say about what happened. I mean, it was 2 in the morning. When you help put out fires for a living, you sleep when you can. You never know when a hook and ladder is gonna come roaring down the street and put you to work for three or four hours.”
Details of that fateful incident weren’t what I was looking for, although Harvey did mention that he suffered a broken chin during Woods’ reckless spree. When the Escalade finally came to a halt moments later, Harvey said he saw Tiger fall to the ground in a half-conscious daze and immediately tried to call 911, but was unsuccessful.
“Lousy cellphone reception,” he sighed. “Happens all the time around here.”
Having spent all those years just outside Woods’ home, no more than 100 yards from the Isleworth driving range, the hydrant got to know Tiger’s golf swing better than anyone alive. “The whole Butch-vs.-Hank thing is a joke,” Harvey said with a hint of disdain. “Do you honestly think Tiger Woods needs somebody to help him hit a golf ball? If you ask me, he has gotten too reliant on guys like Harmon and Haney – and now this new coach, what's his name?”
“Yeah, Foley. I’m not a fan. The hydrant that took my spot over there called me last week and said Foley parked his car right in front of him! That’s a $200 fine in some states nowadays! Can’t the guy show us a little respect?”
As our conversation continued, I was reminded yet again how much things changed in the wake of Woods’ accident last Nov. 27. In terms of its impact on golf’s competitive landscape, it is difficult to imagine a more dramatic upheaval. Tiger’s wife and swing coach would leave him in the spring, his form soon thereafter, and though it is ridiculously easy to blame all his problems on the course to his behavior off it, the true impact of the crash – and subsequent snowball effect – won’t be known for years.
Translation? Maybe the guy’s just not as good as he used to be.
As for the public’s obsession with Tiger’s personal life during the Great Downward Spiral, it seems like an indictment of modern culture, perhaps even a social perversion, until you realize that just about everyone – you and me included – paused at some point to stare at the wreckage. We call it the price of fame. We rationalize our interest with only slight traces of guilt, but when a sleazier and more sordid story comes along, we run from the old news as if it were a live grenade and gather around the water cooler to discuss the latest.
“I got hate mail!” Harvey shrieked. “Tell me, was it my fault the guy was living a double life?”
There was no point in my sticking around any longer. Like a lot of people, the little hydrant was guilty of fate’s only crime: Wrong place, wrong time.
“Nice meeting you,” I said, heading toward my rental car.
“Hey buddy, have a great Thanksgiving,” Harvey said, his voice suddenly full of hope. “Appreciate everything you’ve got – you don’t want to wait until it’s gone.”