ATLANTA, GEORGIA | Very few things can make Southerners turn away from college football. Saturdays down South start with a dawn tailgate and end with barbecue ribs, deviled eggs and whatever Pac-12 game leads SEC fans to say “bless their hearts.” In between, no fewer than four games are watched, one from inside the stadium and three on portable deviscs or 60-inch TVs under the awnings of RVs.
But even with Georgia playing Missouri, Texas A&M visiting Alabama and Clemson hitting the gridiron just eight miles up the road at Georgia Tech, all eyes in and around Atlanta and throughout the south turned to East Lake Golf Club on Saturday afternoon to see the only athlete who could make a Southern man forget about flea flickers and bubble screens.
Tiger Woods doesn’t just move the needle in golf, he is the needle. With all due respect to some great players and even better guys, the tens of thousands of fans who flooded East Lake on Saturday, and the million or so more who tuned in on television, didn’t do so to see Justin Rose or Rory McIlroy. Tiger is it. No athlete in history dominates the consciousness of his sport the way Tiger does. Peyton Manning was a great but NFL numbers didn’t rise and fall precipitously with his performance. Michael Jordan raised the profile of the NBA like no other player. But people didn’t stop what they were doing to watch him make a comeback.
Only Tiger causes ancillary fans of a niche sport to drop everything and turn on golf, as they did on Saturday. What a show they saw. Starting the day tied for the lead with Rose, Tiger birdied No. 1, parred No. 2, and then birdied the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, sending Twitter on a 59-watch frenzy.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 22, 2018
For the first time in forever, women in dresses ran on a golf course to get a halfway decent view. And why wouldn’t they? There have been eight new iPhones since Tiger last won and 16 Cleveland Browns victories. A lot of naysayers speculated that Tiger would win again when the Cubs won a World Series or Donald Trump was president. But here we are.
Tiger made eight putts of 15 feet or longer in the first three rounds and never looked like he was going to miss a 5-footer. By 6 p.m. on Saturday he held a three-shot lead and appeared to be on the cusp of completing the comeback.
Sure, there’s another round to play, but this isn’t the Tiger Woods who has been holding rounds together with imagination and bailing wire. The putter is as solid as it’s been in a decade, the ballstriking is controlled and masterful. He isn’t hitting every tee shot like he’s in a long-drive contest. He isn’t spinning out with a high right shoulder, flipping his hands in the hopes of catching the face up to a racing body. This looks like the Tiger of the “not a fair fight” 2000 season, something most people never thought they’d see again.
So, they watched. Despite the Atlanta Braves clinching the division just 20 miles north, Georgia barely covering the two-touchdown spread over Missouri and the Tide rolling over Jimbo’s Aggies, sports fans found golf. They all wanted to be a part of the biggest comeback story in all of sports.