ORLANDO, Fla. — So many people surrounded the first tee that it was hard to see who was playing. The gallery stretched down the entire length of the 461-yard opening hole and wrapped around the back of the green on a sun-baked Sunday at Bay Hill.
Now on the tee, Tiger Woods.
He was in a tie for 29th. He was 10 shots out of the lead, no serious threat to win.
About four hours later, the final group of Martin Laird and Spencer Levin approached the fifth green with under 100 fans tagging along.
This is nothing new.
A few weeks earlier at Doral, the PGA Tour decided to group players based on their world ranking. Someone estimated the gallery at 85 people for the “Big Three” of Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald. On the other side of the course, there were too many fans to count in the group of players ranked 4-5-6 — Graeme McDowell, Woods and Phil Mickelson.
During the FedEx Cup playoffs last year at Ridgewood, thousands of fans crammed behind the ropes on both sides of the fairway at Ridgewood Country Club to watch Woods, who was in 20th place and going nowhere.
One reporter was thinking too hard as he searched for the meaning of it all.
“I get it … but I don’t get it,” he said as his eyes scanned the size of the crowd. “The guy is in 20th place. Why wouldn’t you go watch someone who is actually playing well?”
The answer: They were there to see Babe Ruth.
Even at his worst — and there are plenty of numbers and statistics to back that up — Woods remains the most compelling figure in golf. It was like that at Bay Hill. It will be that way next week at the Masters, even as Mickelson tries to join him with four green jackets, or Kaymer goes after a second straight major, or Westwood tries to regain the No. 1 ranking, this time without having to explain why.
Never mind that Woods is meandering through mediocrity at the moment.
Wednesday will mark 500 days since his last victory at the Australian Masters, his last tournament before the car crash outside his Florida home and the revelations of affairs that followed and broke up his marriage.
He has played 20 tournaments since, not including the Ryder Cup. In his only chance to win, at the Chevron World Challenge, Woods coughed up a four-shot lead in the final round to McDowell, the first time in his career that Woods was leading by more than three shots going into the last day and didn’t win.
Woods has earned $265,465 in five tournaments this year. He earned more in his first five tournaments as a 20-year-old pro.
In 16 starts on the PGA Tour since he returned last year, Woods has three top 10s.
One longtime British golf journalists might have summed it up best last year at The Players Championship. He wandered onto the TPC Sawgrass to watch Woods for a couple of holes, then walked back in. “It’s nothing special,” he said.
So why the special treatment?
Because Woods is approaching an important anniversary.
It’s not the one-year anniversary of his return to competition at the Masters, where he played off memory and somehow tied for fourth at Augusta National with a performance that raised false hopes.
It’s the 10-year anniversary of his greatest feat.
Woods won the Masters in 2001 to become the only player to hold all four major championships at the same time. It took him 294 days to achieve something that might never be done again. There was no one close to him in the game back then.
There remains no one close to him in interest level now.
That’s why he draws the biggest crowds. That’s why television can’t resist showing him.
A few years ago, Sean O’Hair was in rough on the 14th hole of the North Course at Torrey Pines, and Woods was on the adjacent hole. Spotting a reporter, O’Hair playfully asked why he was always watching Woods. Then came a question to O’Hair: “If you had this job, who would you be watching on Thursday?”
“Tiger,” O’Hair said with a laugh.
Woods was more interesting to watch when he was winning 40 percent of his tournaments, when he looked like a special player. Now he is interesting in a nostaglic sense. They remember how he once performed and wonder if he will ever play that way again.
Will be reach, let alone surpass, the benchmark of 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus?
Can he be golf’s best player again?
Not even Woods knows the answer.
All anyone has at the moment are memories of how he once played, and they are strong enough to hold the interest.
In times of parity — which is what Woods’ demise has brought — come reminders how hard it is to win, and how often Woods won. Consider this: Before turning 30, Woods already had 46 wins on the PGA Tour and 10 majors.
Until someone else comes along — and it probably won’t be in Woods’ lifetime — everyone will want to know about Woods, good or bad. Some watch because they are eager to see him dominate again. Some watch because they delight in his failure. Others are just curious.
But they’re watching.
At the 1999 Masters, when Woods was rebuilding his swing and was no longer No. 1 in the world, he was in the middle of the pack and headed for Amen Corner on Saturday with a dozen or so media close behind. A radio technician looked at the approaching mass with disdain, shook his head and said, “Why are you guys following Tiger? He’s not even the story.”
That’s when someone posed a question.
If Nicklaus had called Augusta National that day, he probably would have asked who was leading the tournament.
What would his next question be?