COVID-19 Update Learn More »

 X 

What It’s Like to Follow Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open

It’s 1:48 p.m. on Thursday and two-time defending U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka has just been introduced on the first tee. The applause is hearty and warm. When the cheering dies down, Koepka addresses his ball.

The silence is broken by a smattering of Tiger catcalls, then a burst of applause. You didn’t need to see him to know that Tiger Woods had arrived at the practice green, on the other side of the grandstands, just behind Koepka.

A focused Koepka smashes a piercing iron down the middle of the fairway. If he was bothered by the outburst, he didn’t show it.

That’s life at the U.S. Open, when you’re playing two groups ahead of Tiger Woods. It doesn’t matter if you’re the two-time defending champion, or if you’re on a Major championship run that can only be compared to Tiger – all while calling out everyone who has underestimated you along the way.

Make no mistake. This is the Tiger Woods Show.

There are two major events going on right now. There’s the U.S. Open, and there’s the Tiger Woods rock concert, an 18-hole tour with a stampeding gallery swallowing everything around it. There’s simply nothing like it in golf. Half of the course’s attention is diverted to one player, while the other half is waiting for Tiger to reach them.

After all, if you go to the U.S. Open and don’t see Tiger Woods, did you really go?

Grandstands fill up a good 45 minutes before Tiger Woods arrives at each hole. Grandstands fill up a good 45 minutes before Tiger Woods arrives at each hole.

There are two major events going on right now. There’s the U.S. Open, and there’s the Tiger Woods rock concert, an 18-hole tour with a stampeding gallery swallowing everything around it.

Tiger Woods is the home team. He’s backed by golf’s 12th Man wherever he walks. Hotel guests hang out of their balconies for a glimpse. Fans hold up a sea of cell phones to prove their proximity to greatness. Others channel their inner primate and scramble up Monterey Pines to catch a peek.

It truly is a zoo. Fathers form totem poles and throw their kids on their shoulders. You’d think his ball is named Tiger the way fans scream his name whenever his shot is in the air, or tracking toward the hole. It’s a reaction only elicited by Tiger Woods.

On the inland holes, the ones that aren’t celebrated at Pebble Beach, galleries are 10 fans deep on both sides of the fairway. A marshal light-heartedly warns, “Hey guys, don’t break the ropes,” as Tiger’s magnetic presence pulls the gallery closer and tighter.

Movement through the gallery is best described as a current of fans. A few brave fans try to work their way back to the first tee, joking that they are salmon swimming upstream. Others are cast aside, strewn out along the edges of holes, resigned to wait out the storm. “No way I’m following Tiger,” they warn, with the exhausted looks of shipwrecked survivors.

In the eye of Hurricane Tiger, you aren’t really watching him. You can’t. You’re listening to his legion, piecing together decibel clues. After hearing a growing roar by the first green, an excited Tiger backer cheerfully concludes, “He’s got a birdie putt!”

It's easier to hear Tiger than see him. It's easier to hear Tiger than see him.

On the inland holes, the ones that aren’t celebrated at Pebble Beach, galleries are 10 fans deep on both sides of the fairway. A marshal light-heartedly warns, “Hey guys, don’t break the ropes,” as Tiger’s magnetic presence pulls the gallery closer and tighter.

Tiger cheers are listened to with the heart. As a short burst of cheering from the third green reaches the middle of the fourth fairway, another Tiger fan deduces, “Must be Tiger!” before sticking two fingers in his mouth and joining the gallery with an ear-splitting whistle.

A Tiger gallery is unlike anything else in golf. It’s full of accents and different languages. Polos are outnumbered by t-shirts. Prestigious golf club logos disappear in favor of jerseys and novelty shirts and hats donning Tiger’s likeness. Fans take to Carmel Beach to write him messages in kelp. It’s a love and level of fandom that no other golfer has ever stoked.

The uniform of the Tiger gallery Thursday was a sweatshirt tied around your waist. It’s not a fashion statement – layers simply needed to go. It’s too hot when you’re packed like sardines.

If you need a breather, you can always drop back a hole. The attention paid to the group behind Tiger has the look of a deserted practice round.

Golf is a different sport when Tiger is on the prowl. It’s a fantastic spectacle, a louder, electric experience. It’s best appreciated from a distance, with the view of your choice, as he plays through. But if you get swept up into the madness, enjoy the wild ride. Just don’t expect to see much golf.

Photography by Ben Warden


Facebook Conversations