Wedge in hand, Tiger Woods returns from the chipping area. After a full warm-up, he wants just four more at the range. Steve Williams, standing guard on the bag, pulls the driver headcover as his boss approaches. Taking more time between swings, stepping into and out of his stance, Tiger bombs three shots to within a blanket's spread. He then hits one 3-wood, also perfect, removes his glove and clasps hands with instructor Sean Foley, who until now has been standing quietly, almost out of view, dressed in black with dark sunglasses like a stagehand. It's showtime.
What is going through Tiger's mind as the ropes are raised and the guards usher him through? What does a man who was No. 1 in the world for 281 consecutive weeks think about in these 20 strange minutes before his name is announced to the crowd? After the scandal and fall from dominance, it's not unreasonable to suggest his mind is not as clear as it once was.
He stops at the putting green to roll a few.
As tantalizing as it is to speculate into such a psyche, the truth is, Tiger and first-tee jitters pre-date the salacious unraveling of his public image. Rightly overshadowed by an almost coldblooded ability to execute clutch shots at the most important moments coming down the stretch, is a history of hitting awful, awful shots off the first tee.
"He has no problems finishing, but he's had problems starting," says Hank Haney, Tiger's coach for his last six major victories. "Most players are the other way around."
The last time the Open Championship was at Royal St. George's, in 2003, Tiger blew his inaugural shot 30 yards right into deep fescue, lost the ball and made a triple-bogey 7.
Winners aren't trained to isolate incidents and think "if only" in the grind of 72-hole championships and careers, but sitting on 14 professional majors and four shy of Nicklaus' record, does Tiger forget that he lost to Ben Curtis that year by just two shots?
Golf fans might not have been treated to the dramatic, hobbling Monday playoff win over Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines if not for Tiger's poor drives that led to opening double bogeys three of the four days in regulation. At the 2001 Masters, Woods clinched the consecutive Grand Slam despite missing the first fairway all four rounds. At the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills and 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, which he didn't win, again Woods missed the first fairway all four rounds. At the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Tiger's opening shot sailed an astonishing 50 yards left of the fairway. (Perhaps more astonishing was that he saved par.) At the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Tiger's bad drive and opening double bogey in the third round would keep him from forcing a playoff against Payne Stewart. And Friday's first swing at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie suggests the problem is not limited to Tiger's hollow bats. That particular pull-hook into Barry Burn came off a 2-iron.
Tiger has had first-tee travails at regular tour venues, too, year after year pulling it left at TPC Sawgrass and blocking it right at Quail Hollow, but it's the moments from major championships that are indelible.
Standing together on the first tee of the 1997 Masters, Nick Faldo wasn't knighted and Tiger Woods hadn't won a pro major. The defending champ split the fairway, and the third-time contestant hooked his tee shot way left into the pine straw. The 21-year-old made bogey, went out in 40, then of course went on to win by 12. Now with four green jackets, Tiger's worst hole at Augusta National remains the first, which he has played at 17 over par through 66 rounds. He's 101 under on the other 17. Granted, Augusta's first hole plays as one of the toughest, but the 445-yard, uphill par 4 hasn't been a comparable nuisance to other champions. On Sunday in 2010, in contention, Tiger started his round with a hook so harsh it crossed the ninth fairway.
"He's become notorious for that, hasn't he?" says Sir Nick Faldo, 14 years after that first snipe. "It's probably just a timing thing. He's always working on things at the practice range, getting them in a groove, and then in that cooling-off period sometimes something happens. Especially when you're swinging 120 miles per hour or more, just being a fraction off can mean a lot."
Haney doesn't think it has anything to do with swing tinkering. "I've never seen him hit a shot on the practice tee that resembles some of those bad shots on the first tee, but that's golf," Haney says. "People think that because he's come through in so many pressure situations that he never gets nervous. But he's human, too."
Nervous? Funny to think of Tiger Woods experiencing the same nauseous mind/limb disconnect hackers get when there are diners on the patio.
Typical of his post-round attitude, Tiger has been dismissive. Commenting on his third opening double at Torrey, he joked, "It helps to get into the flow of the round when you hit six shots on the first hole." Then he deflected attention from his drive: "It's one thing to hit the ball left off the first tee--that's fine, pitch out. But the wedge shot, I had all the room short of the hole, and I fly it past the hole. That's just a terrible mistake." After the catastrophe at Carnoustie, Tiger's downplaying the severity speaks either to mental fortitude or a desire to forget embarrassment, which in a way is the same thing. "It's not like you don't make bad swings in major championships; that's part of the deal. The whole idea was not to make anything worse than 6, and I didn't do that."
"No matter who you are, the first tee is an anxious moment," says Butch Harmon, Tiger's coach for his first eight major wins. "With Tiger I don't think it's so much nerves, rather he's just so eager to get started. Majors are what Tiger is about, and when he comes into one knowing he's playing well, he's excited to get going. We talked in the past about trying to get him to relax, to slow down and see his shot before he hits."
Whether you're nervous or eager, teachers agree adhering to a routine is the most effective way for all golfers to overcome the first tee. "With pressure situations, human nature is to want to get it over with quickly," says Golf Digest teaching professional David Leadbetter. "I tell my regular students the same things I tell pros: Be conscious of your grip pressure, remember to breathe, and don't rush.
"Pros get nervous, same as you and me," Leadbetter says. "Trevor [Immelman] and I once joked about how hard it would be trying to tee a ball with one of those three-prong tees on the first hole at Augusta."
Though it's comforting to be reminded that the world's best are not immune, does Tiger have a plan going forward to stumble less from the gate in his race for the record? "I've never told Tiger anything about that," Foley says. "He knows how to play golf."
Then, thinking a moment, Foley adds, "You get to the first tee, and you see thousands of people lining the hole. Your heart starts pumping, and what was smooth on the range might get a little quick and mess up your sequencing. Of course, the opposite can also happen. Your adrenaline gets up, and you pump it 340 down the middle."
The starter speaks Woods' name into the microphone, and the spectators respond like they do for no other. He makes one, two check-swings, then settles into his stance. Then he draws the club back.