Shadowing Tiger at U.S. Open is a lot tougher than it looks
No problem, I’m thinking. I’m built for this, having caddied at a country club back in the day. And where are the black caddies, anyway?
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It’s approaching 1 p.m. at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and the spectators are crowding the first-tee box and jockeying for position along the first hole to witness the return of Tiger Woods to the U.S. Open.
It’s been three years since Woods has played at a U.S. Open. Ten years since he’s won a major championship (the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines).
And even though it’s been five years since Woods has won any tournament of any kind, there are crowds lining both sides of the entire first hole, two and three deep, by the time Woods steps to the tee for his 1:47 p.m. start.
My editor has this idea: shadow Tiger. For his entire round. Witness every shot while capturing the feel and the vibe of his first round of the U.S. Open.
No problem, I’m thinking. I’m built for this, having caddied at a Long Island country club just over an hour’s drive west of here. Back in the day I’d walk 18 holes with one golf bag on each shoulder, usually escorting a pair of crappy golfers through their rounds that took me through the course — and the woods that surrounded it.
So I’m thinking following one of the best golfers in the history of the sport through his 18 holes of a course playing nearly 7,500 yards is going to be a breeze.
Shadowing Woods and trying to get a glimpse of every shot of his first round turned out to be more challenging than I could have ever imagined.
Hole No. 1, 393 Yards, Par 4
It’s fair to say, based on the number of people along the first hole, that 70 percent of the fans walking the grounds on day one of the U.S. Open are here to see the marquee group of the afternoon that features Woods alongside the top two players in the world, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas.
And, honestly, you could have replaced Johnson and Thomas with me and Stevie Wonder and the massive crowd would have been the same.
I’ve posted up on the media ramp halfway down the first hole to get an elevated view of the group off the tee. There’s a loud roar as Woods is announced, and as I struggle to track the ball as it leaves his 2-iron, I realize that my biggest strength as a caddie, my ability to see every ball, has abandoned me.
Woods’ first shot lands on the right center of the fairway. More than a few fans near the landing spot jump up and down in anticipation of being within 20 yards of Woods’ second swing.
The second shot from Woods, who’s dressed in all gray, flies the green. And his third shot finds the edge of the green, but the crowd groans in unison as the ball rolls off the green and back toward him. When the hole ends, Woods is 3 over, which leaves me to safely say: “I am Tiger Woods.”
Hole No. 2, 253 yards Par 3
Most of those fans who followed Woods along the first hole have crammed every available viewing spot along the short par-3.
Woods’ 2-iron off the green hits the green and rolls off the back, leaving him a tough up-and-down for a par. As he walks toward the green, a couple of guys open up those folding walking chairs you see fans carrying and step on top for a better view. They’re watching Woods and I’m watching them, thinking I’m going to capture their potential face-plant on video, and maybe go down in history as the first person at a U.S. Open to shout, “World Star.”
The guys stay in place as Woods drops another stroke to fall 4-over through two. As I double-step to try to find a good position along the third hole, I hear a fan groan in disappointment, “He came back for the U.S. Open and does this?”
Hole No. 3, 500 yards Par 4
The life of being a sportswriter has spoiled me because all this jockeying and maneuvering just to keep Woods in view is too much work.
This is the first golf tournament I’ve covered in more than 20 years, and my first major. The technology sure has changed over those two decades, as I discovered as I walked into a media room with reporters positioned in front of a wall covered with rotating images and constantly updating stats. It reminds me of the war room at NASA when this country used to launch missions into space.
Back to Woods, he cranks a drive that’s more than 300 yards, and I’m waiting for the group to pass so I can cross to the other side of the fairway, where I think I’ll be in better position for the next hole.
There’s a nice woman who holds the rope to keep the fans back, but a couple of guys have decided to test her authority and have stood in front of the rope.
We’ll call the two habitual line-steppers.
Woods’ second shot reaches the green but again rolls off. I struggle to see him as he gets up and down, keeping him 4 over through three.
Hole No. 4, 475 yards Par 4
Shinnecock Hills is a links-style course, meaning there are very few trees.
And very little relief for shade.
The afternoon of round one is breezy and sunny. So spotting a few trees on the left side of the fairway on the fourth hole, I determine that’s the side of the hole that I’m going to walk.
Back to Woods, his drive is off the right side of the fairway across from my resting place under the tree. His second shot lands on the green and rolls just off yet again. Woods again saves par, and he seems to have steadied himself after his awful start.
Hole No. 5, 589 yards Par 5
Lining up midway up the fifth hole to watch the golfers off the tee, I’m still struggling to find the ball as it comes off the club.
Standing a few yards away from one of the camera crews that’s covering every angle of this marquee group.
The cameraman is just as clueless as I am.
Neither one of us picked up the Woods drive until the moment it hit the center of the fairway. After his second shot comes up short of the green, Woods is able to pitch to within 4 feet.
I’m in fairly decent position to see Woods’ birdie putt, just behind a guy wearing a fireman’s baseball hat (with the word “Firefighter” on the back). But then our views are blocked by two guys who step right in front.
The man with the hat is pissed, uses his finger as an imaginary gun and takes point-blank pretend shots at the heads of the two guys. And as I’m barely able to see Woods make his first birdie, I’m thinking, “Thank goodness for the metal detectors at the gate.”
Hole No. 6, 491 yards Par 4
Woods hits a nice drive, but there’s a slight delay as there’s trouble with finding Johnson’s ball in the high weeds. While 10 guys search for Johnson’s ball, including Woods, a guy stops in front of me wearing a MAGA shirt.
I didn’t know they were selling those in blue.
Woods’ second shot is in front of the green, and he misses his birdie putt. He taps in for par, and as I’m physically struggling to get to the next hole I get a second wind when a couple who appear to be in their 70s, and have been with Woods for the entire round, quickly walk past me.
Hole No. 7, 189 yards Par 3
Another short hole, meaning limited real estate in terms of getting a good view. I’m 6-foot-2, and usually my height saves me in these situations. Not today, where a number of fans appear to be my height or taller.
As the group steps to the tee, a guy in the crowd shouts, “Excuse us, excuse us, we’re disabled.” I looked over to see what appeared to be a perfectly healthy couple, each one with a tall cup of beer in their hands.
I didn’t know a beer gut qualified you for disability.
Woods’ tee shot rolls just off the green, and he walks away with an easy par to stay 3 over.
Hole No. 8, 439 yards Par 4
Looking around the course, I’m noticing something that would have been shocking 40 years ago: the lack of black caddies.
If there’s a black caddy on the course, I haven’t seen him. Which is totally opposite from the time I was introduced to caddying by my father when I was 11 years old.
Caddying was my dad’s side gig. It not only gave him extra income, but it also allowed him to play the country club courses on the days they were closed, on Mondays, which helped him refine his game that had him competing in amateur tournament championships when he was younger.
There’s a reason for the change — caddying is now big business. Most caddies get a weekly salary, plus 10 percent of the players’ winnings. The winner of this week’s U.S. Open will earn $2.1 million, which means the caddy walks away with $210,000.
When I first started caddying at Plandome Country Club in the 1970s I made pretty good money. By the time I was done caddying by the end of high school, a lot of the sons of the members were caddying as well, taking money from the earnings of the mostly black group who did the work at the course when I started.
As Woods saved par and the three golfers walked off the eighth hole with their white, well-paid caddies, I thought about Red Joe, Big Willie and all those old-timers who showed me the ropes.
Hole No. 9, 485 yards Par 4
The ninth hole, for weekend golfers like me, means a sandwich, a cold beverage and a brief break.
But the pros don’t take a break. So there’s no reward as I climb the tough hill to see Woods finish his relatively vanilla first nine holes at 3 over. It’s immediately on to 10.
Hole No. 10, 415 yards Par 4
The winds at this course are ridiculous, which played a large part in the high scores that were shot by the golfers who went off in the morning session.
And Woods standing over his putt at the elevated 10th green shows just how windy: A wind burst rolls his ball over by two dimples, forcing him to seek a ruling from an official. Woods is told to just spot his ball in the new spot, and he makes par.
Hole No. 11, 159 yards Par 3
I’m checking out Woods off the tee with one eye, with the other keeping track of the beverage cart along the next hole. My warm bottle of water’s long gone, and I definitely need to recharge.
To the naked eye, the hole seems easy. But the swirling winds make it treacherous. Woods ends up in the right bunker, and his second shot is well short. I’m watching Woods make his bogey putt from a distance, while making a libation transaction.
Hole No. 12, 469 yards Par 4
The only time I’ve seen Woods play live was in 2013 at the FedEx Cup Playoff at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City. Watching that tournament as a fan, I was pleasantly surprised at the diverse group of people who attended that event.
There’s some diversity here at Shinnecock, but it’s not a lot. Maybe it has to do with where the events are held: In Jersey City, people from the New York metropolitan area could easily get to the venue.
It takes two hours by train to get to Southampton from New York City, and getting here by car is nearly impossible, as the traffic has crippled the town. Perhaps that has an impact on what this crowd looks like.
Back to Woods, the magic his followers were expecting to see is just not happening. It’s another par, keeping him at 4 over.
Hole No. 13, 374 yards Par 4
Woods reaches green in two. Woods four-putts.
People watch in disbelief as Woods four-putts from 40 feet, finishing with double-bogey.
Now fans, not far from the clubhouse, are left with difficult decisions.
Take the long walk along this par-4 14th hole to continue watching Woods?
Or take this short walk toward the clubhouse and the exit?
A lot of people bail.
Hole No. 14, 519 yards Par 4
As I’m waiting at the 14th hole fairway crossing, a golf cart pulls up right behind me and parks at my heel. I’ve noticed the hyperaggressive golf cart drivers all day, so I move to the side.
That’s my vantage point seeing Woods’ tee shot carry well right of the fairway. As the fairway crossing opens, carts speed across in both directions. The driver of one cart is a bit overzealous, riding up the back of the leg of a fan.
He’s not very happy.
When I finally find Woods, he’s hitting shots all over the place. With a considerably smaller group of followers, he double-bogeys to drop his score to 8 over, putting him in serious jeopardy of not making the cut.
Hole No. 15, 409 yards Par 4
As Woods’ round fades to black, it’s getting dark as the clouds creep in. As Woods reaches the green, where he makes par, there are fewer than 100 fans left who are following the group.
Hole No. 16, 616 yards Par 5
On the longest hole of the course, Woods provides a glimpse of his greatness, cranking a long drive that might put him in position to get on in two — and maybe get him an eagle or birdie to get back in this tournament. He comes up short with his second into the front bunker and misses his birdie putt. He seems to be laughing in disgust as he makes the short walk to the 17th tee.
Hole No. 17, 180 yards Par 3
I can see the media center, and am visualizing the food and drinks that are awaiting, as Woods reaches the green and two-putts for par.
Hole No. 18, 485 yards Par 4
I’m set up halfway up the 18th to see Woods wind up just off the right fairway. Never crosses my mind to walk that hill toward the green as his second shot comes up short of the green, which leaves Woods to finish with a par.
Entering the day with hopes of seeing Woods play a magnificent round, it ended with the course beating Woods (plus-8) along with many other great golfers like Rory McIlroy (plus-10) and Jordan Spieth (plus-8).
Our friend Harold Varner (plus-9) also had his problems in his second U.S. Open, while a golfer from Britain, Scott Gregory, shot a high score of 92 (plus-22).
I probably moved as quickly as I had all day as I made my way to the media center, hoping to get energized by the dinner spread.
There’s no satisfaction when I arrive — the dinner spread is packed away.
Woods might be packing his bags after shooting a 2-over 72 on Friday that left him in danger of missing the cut.