ATLANTA, GEORGIA | Biggest crowd ever is just a guess, but it’s a good one. I’ve been attending the Tour Championship since the 1980s and covering it at East Lake Golf Club since the first iteration back in 1998 when Hal Sutton stuffed a 4-wood into the 18th to win. I saw Phil beat Tiger twice. I saw Jim Furyk win with his cap on backward. And I was standing behind the 17th green when Bill Haas hit the shot of his life out of the water.
I watched Henrik Stenson put on a ballstriking exhibition and make a dry, off-color joke in the media center immediately after. I saw Rory hole a wedge from seemingly nowhere en route to the title. Jordan, Brandt and a guy named Xander: I saw them all. But never, not once, have I seen crowds like the throng swarming the East Lake fairways on Friday.
It started in the morning with a line of cars inching through the surrounding neighborhoods, the kind of traffic jam usually reserved for Thanksgiving or three-day weekends. The homeowners around East Lake who sell parking in their yards had an added spring in their steps, waving their orange flags with all the gusto of a high school color-guard troupe. That was an hour before the first tee time and four hours before the arrival of the pairing most fans wanted to see.
“Folks from the Tour are saying they did quite well with last-minute ticket sales,” Chuck Palmer, the tournament vice chairman, told me near the 10th fairway. Of course, PGA Tour officials treat attendance numbers like the nuclear codes. The question about how many folks were on site hadn’t passed my lips before two Tour folks shook their heads and crinkled their noses like I’d fouled the room.
That is a shame because there have been times when the Tour Championship has looked like a friends-and-family outing. In 2006, the year Adam Scott won, I followed the leaders on Friday with five other people. Not 500, not 50. Five.
This year they were five deep on both sides of the fairways.
That is what it’s like to have Tiger Woods back. Yes, he has teased – Tampa, the PGA Championship in soggy St. Louis – but this was different. This looked like Tiger 2000, controlled power, a near-perfect baby fade, picking apart East Lake like he was playing a video game. Even the double bogey on 16 didn’t look terrible. He just found a lie from which there was no shot.
The crowds were Tiger galleries of old, enormous and enthusiastic. When he birdied Nos. 14 and 15, the noise could have been heard in Spartanburg.
But there was a difference. While the crowds were swelling, the people weren’t swilling. These weren’t the frat boy fans of ’97 or the “You Da Man!” posers of the early 2000s. These fans appreciated history. And they knew it when they saw it.
Whether or not Tiger wins on Sunday (and given how he’s playing, he has to be the favorite), it won’t matter to the people who flooded East Lake on Friday afternoon. They got to see what those of us who followed the game 20 years ago witnessed on an almost weekly basis. They got to see one of the greatest athletes in history. Not as a shell of himself, but, as Tommy Fleetwood said, as a man who “is really good at golf.”