PEBBLE BEACH — It started at the driving range, where the rumbles usually begin. Despite a sun-kissed day and little traffic on the roads heading toward 17-Mile Drive, the crowd was shockingly light on Monday morning at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Yet what they lacked in number, they compensated for in voice, letting themselves be heard when the man they were waiting for, Tiger Woods, appeared. It was a response saved for conquering heroes, and around these parts—where he turned in arguably the greatest performance in the game's history at the 2000 U.S. Open—Woods is certainly that.
There were the habitual yells of his name and shouts of encouragement, the interminable line of autograph seekers. Two men stood at the railing dressed in tiger costumes; when Woods finished his warm-up, he briefly stopped for a photo, transforming these 30-somethings into giddy 13-year-olds.
"I've been following him forever," said one of the costumed men to no one in particular as the other jumped in the air at their good fortune. "I can't believe this is happening. I was here when he won, and he's going to win again. Make sure to write that." With that they were off, running their way to the first tee as Tiger was shuttled on a more direct route along a service road.
As our two friends, and the horde that followed, made their way down the hill from the range, a volunteer officer shook his head. "He [Tiger] brings out a side of people you don't see."
Tiger proceeded to play the front nine with Bryson DeChambeau (and DeChambeau's ever-growing entourage), and the 15-time major winner was noticeably loose. To be fair, most of the field had their shoulders down, checking out their phones as they stopped and took photos of the picturesque vistas around every corner of Pebble. But this is Woods, the man who carries the disposition of a military general the night before battle, who kept Justin Thomas at arm's length during a practice trek at the Masters. To see Woods joking and laughing with DeChambeau and his crew on every hole was, well, disarming.
Perhaps it's the budding rapport between the two. Maybe Woods, cognizant of the long week ahead, wants to say mentally fresh, or it's simply the comfortability of returning to such friendly confines. Just as interesting as Woods' demeanor was that of the crowd. While it was a multitude of backgrounds and ages and races, almost all seemed to be holding the same conversation, one centered around Woods' romp 19 years ago. There's always a hint of nostalgia looming around Woods, but Monday seemed awash in it.
Amazingly, these conversations weren't just strolls down memory lane. That 15-stroke triumph, the one two decades ago? That wasn't a memory; that was a forecast for this week.
"I'm telling you, no one knows this course better than Tiger," said one old-timer to another on the third hole, and a line that has to make Phil Mickelson and his five Pro-Am titles fidget. At the sixth hole, two college kids were weighing the possibilities of Tiger vs. the field.
"When I see the percentages, I understand it's a dumb bet," said Connor Walters, 23, of San Francisco. "I also wouldn't feel good if I was on the opposite side of it. He won by 15 here, after all."
Yes, that's ridiculous. That 2000 performance will—go ahead and bold, underline and highlight the following—never happen again. It's the unfortunate price of greatness: Tiger, to some extent, will always be a prisoner of his past.
And yet, what makes this latest iteration of Tiger Woods special is not that he continues to trigger such hype and excitement at 43. It's that he's still living up to it.
The Masters win was an all-timer, yet somehow that doesn't do the past 12 months justice. Since missing the cut at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hill last June, Woods has 10 top-10s in 16 starts, highlighted by wins Augusta and East Lake and a runner-up at Bellerive. Statistically, only Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy have been better over this span.
If a rough showing last month at Bethpage, missing the cut by a stroke, was supposed to douse the fervor with a touch of reality, well—as Monday proved—those flames remain lit.
Woods looked solid in his jaunt with DeChambeau. He found most of the fairways on the front and almost jarred one at the famous par-3 seventh. Whereas a cold had him less than 100 percent at Bethpage, Woods looked just as spry and energetic, if not more so, than the 25-year-old DeChambeau. An energy the crowd could feel.
"They said he was hurt, the Masters took it out of him," said Curtis Bleaker, 41, on the second hole. "Does he look hurt?"
History aside—along with his 2000 victory, Woods finished T-4 at the 2010 U.S. Open and won the 2000 AT&T Pro-Am—Pebble should play into Woods' hands. It's not particularly long, allowing him to hit a bevy of 3-woods off the tee to avoid the heavy rough. The dime-sized greens will put an extra onus on the approach, playing into Woods' strength (first in greens in regulation, 13th in strokes gained/approach). Moreover, those aforementioned diminutive putting surfaces call for a sturdy short game, which Tiger certainly boasts (eighth in sg/around-the-green). Better yet, the greens shouldn't run, at least compared to other U.S. Open venues, that fast.
Before this train runs too far down the tracks, Woods has his work cut out. That T-4 in 2010 was his last top 20 at the national championship. He's played the course in tournament conditions just twice in the past 17 years. The tall stuff is as brutal as anything the USGA could conjure; given Woods is ranked 203rd in rough proximity, any waywardness off the tee will be penalized to the nth degree.
There's also that matter of Koepka, who's been more machine than man over the past five majors. Along with McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and a host of other viable contenders in his path.
Those matters will be faced in short order. Monday was a day of welcome, Woods' first round in front of fans in Pebble in seven years. They showered him with love and affection. For the memories he made 19 years ago, and for the ones he could make this week.