AUGUSTA, Ga. — Pay heed to the following, those attending the Masters this week. Or visiting any high-profile golf event, for that matter. These words may seem asinine and contrarian, and are most definitely unpopular. But they are true and will aid your viewing experience.
If you want to watch golf—which seems like a straightforward proposition, given this is the Masters and all, but one that's not always the case—and absorb as much action as possible, then you will need to do the unthinkable.
You can't, under any circumstance, follow Tiger Woods.
(ducks to avoid tomatoes)
We get it. You don't go to St. Elmo’s Steak House and order the veggie burger. Woods is no longer in his prime, but no one in the sport—or sports, for that matter—rivals his magnetism. The argument can be made that the latest iteration of Tiger-mania has never been more galvanizing. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and veiled by the threat of Woods never returning, there's a sense of appreciation, and possible finality, to Tiger's continued comeback.
That's well and good. But the cold, incontrovertible fact is it's a hassle to watch Tiger. Or should we say, try to.
At a normal tournament, the masses—underline "masses"—following Tiger are more carnivals than crowds. Things are more civil at Augusta National, but you can only contain a circus so much.
That includes practice rounds. Tiger's galleries go four deep, minimum, with tee boxes and greens hovering in the 10 to 12 range. There are rarely unobstructed views of Big Cat; the ones that manifest result in elbows, nudges, the dissolution of boundaries. Despite the open-air confines, you can feel like you're trapped in an elevator.
This battle endures over 18 holes. If you're lucky, you might see a dozen actual swings from Tiger. A far cry from the rest of the property, where the course, and the players that roam it, are in full view.
On Wednesday morning, as the supergroup of Woods, Fred Couples, Justin Thomas and Kevin Kisner walked the front, Augusta National's second nine was, save for Amen Corner and the 16th, empty. Dustin Johnson, one of the tournament favorites, worked in anonymity. The gallery was healthy for Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay coming down the 10th, not so much anywhere else. You would never know Justin Rose was the World No. 1 by the band that surrounded him. Even Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters winner and a guy not short on fan support, was accompanied by only a small company.
And then there was Rory McIlroy, who played Augusta's front. McIlroy, who can win the career Grand Slam this week, had a host of patrons around him on the second and third tee boxes, his gallery slowly growing as he made his way along each hole. Only it wasn't his gallery: Tiger was behind him, the numbers growing because patrons were jogging ahead to see Woods. That the tournament favorite stood in front of them was of no real concern.
For Augusta zealots, staying away from Tiger's trail gives you the opportunity to enjoy the course in all its serenity and nuance. If you're a fan of the professionals, it's a chance to be this close to stars like Spieth, DJ and Phil, to see the swagger and hear the conversations. Those with children, a perfect conduit to the game, the views are unimpeded and your personal space maintained.
You're not constricted to one spot. You walk with a player for a few holes and keep your intimacy. It's VIP treatment, only with pimento and egg salad subbing for bottle service.
And unlike Tiger time, which is wrapped in urgency, you're on Augusta time, which has no clock.
Yes, it is Tiger, at Augusta National. How often do you get to see Springsteen play the Garden? For those that want the experience, that need to say they saw Woods, plot three holes ahead. Set camp in a grandstands, or hold your ground by the fairway. Just don't stand too close to the ropes, unless you want it frayed into your gut. It may be fleeting, but you will get your moment.
But that's all it will be, a moment, and likely an uncomfortable one at that. So if don't want a fellow patron yelling a five-letter word in your ear, or wish to mosey at your pace and not the pace of a stampede, let others get their gaze of Tiger, and discover what the rest are too blind to see.