DUBLIN, Ohio – There has been only one constant in Tiger Woods’ career.
Caddies have come and gone, as have swing coaches, and his game has fundamentally adapted to various physical challenges and evolving technology. But the one thing that’s been there, every raucous step of the way, has been the fans.
The patrons were packed around Augusta National’s 18th green when he made history at the 1997 Masters. The hordes inspired every labored step when he won the ’08 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. And the vintage footage of hole-in-one celebration in 1997 at TPC Scottdale is a highlight-reel staple.
Even in 2012 at Congressional, when something called a derecho storm forced officials at the old AT&T National to play the third round without fans, there were still a few dozen interested “bystanders” along for the ride. Last year at the Zozo Championship, fans may have been banned from the property because of a typhoon, but there was still plenty of noise.
The snapshots of Tiger’s career are set against a sea of jubilant fans (see: Tour Championship Sunday, 2018). The roars have served as a soundtrack to his accomplishments and the energy the masses have provided has been his fuel.
That all changes this week at the Memorial Tournament.
“There's nothing to feed off of energy-wise,” Woods conceded following a nine-hole practice round on Tuesday. “You make a big putt or make a big par or make a big chip or hit a hell of a shot, there's no one there. That's one of the more interesting things that it'll be going forward. I think this is going to [be the] setup, for not just in the short-term, but for the foreseeable future, for sure.”
Numerous sources have told GolfChannel.com that the plan is to not have fans at any PGA Tour events this season, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, the Wyndham Championship and BMW Championship both announced they would be played without galleries. Other events are sure to follow.
For some players, not having fans isn’t that big of a deal. The vast majority of Tour rounds are played in relative obscurity, even during the best of times. But for Tiger, not having that built-in support group will be a fundamental shift to his world.
Through good times – “Great shot, Tiger!” – and bad – “Get in the hole!” – the largely adoring masses have been there, and he has learned how to use it to his advantage.
Tiger Woods, the fan, noticed the difference on Sunday at Muirfield Village, when his buddy Justin Thomas was dueling with Collin Morikawa down the stretch at the Workday Charity Open.
“It felt weird as I was watching on my computer at home, like [No.] 14, when Collin hit the ball on the green there. If they had that same situation during a Memorial event [with fans], to have someone drive the ball on the green that close to the hole, I mean, that whole hillside would have been going nuts,” Woods said. “To see [Thomas] make that putt [on the first playoff hole], he's screaming, but no one else is screaming. The whole hillside on 18 would have just erupted.”
Tiger Woods, the player, knows those scenes will be repeated over and over again into the foreseeable future.
Since the Tour restarted its schedule last month at Colonial, the absence of fans has been somewhat mitigated by dramatic finishes, like last week’s replacement stop at Muirfield Village. Those events, particularly on the weekend, were strange. With Tiger competing on Tour for the first time since February the scene promises to lapse helplessly into the surreal, particularly if Woods finds himself in the hunt late on Sunday.
Even on Tuesday during his abbreviated practice round, the lack of eyeballs was obvious. Practice rounds are, by design, low-key affairs, but when Tiger chipped in from behind the green at No. 12 the only sounds were a lawnmower rumbling in the distance and random conversations among those in his entourage.
Imagine a scene where Tiger is vying for victory No. 6 at Jack’s Place - and Tour record No. 83, overall - and he rolls in a dramatic putt on the 18th green like Thomas’ last Sunday.
“It's so different not having the energy of the crowd," Woods said. "And for me watching at home as a spectator and one that has played this golf course and have heard the energy that the fans bring to these holes and these situations, not to have that is very different, very stark really."
After spending a lifetime learning how to channel that energy, which for many has also acted as a distraction, Tiger must now find a replacement for that rush. There will be no fan celebrations after good shots or encouragement after bad shots, only a strange silence that will be deafening given the circumstances.
“I think for me in particular, I'm going to have to just put my head down and play. It's going to be different, there's no doubt about it,” he acknowledged. “For most of my career, pretty much almost every competitive playing round that I've been involved in, I've had people around me, spectators yelling, a lot of movement inside the gallery with camera crews and media. For some of the older guys it's very eye-opening really.”
Those galleries have been as much a part of Tiger’s legacy as his all-world short game and unrivaled ball-striking. Without them everything will feel different.