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We would say this was like awaiting royalty, but we’re not sure Prince Charles would command such an audience at 7:30 a.m. in the woods of western Pulaski County on a cloudy Tuesday morning. Maybe Princess Di, if she came back from the beyond, might be as big a draw.
Every local TV cameraman and sportscaster, every local talk-radio voice, and every scribe from here to Fort Smith was cordoned off by yellow rope to the right side of the Alotian Club’s practice tee. Forty-five kids, evenly distributed from the Episcopal Collegiate School, Fort Smith’s First Tee and Little Rock’s First Tee, waited in front of a small erected stand with white wooden folded chairs that held a few hundred spectators.
Then, HE came down the cart path from above.
Tiger Woods had arrived. The masses oohed and ahhed and clapped throughout the 45-minute clinic as Woods, golf’s greatest player of this era and certainly in the company of Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones as the best ever, shared his pre-tournament routine with the fans.
They had all come at the invitation of Warren Stephens, who was putting on the Jack Stephens Charitable Golf Tournament at the Alotian Club, the best manicured golf course this side of Augusta National in Georgia, of which Stephens is a member and where Tiger has won the Masters tournament four times. The tournament, an invitation-only event, was to raise money for a variety of causes, including the Tiger Woods Foundation and First Tee.
It seemed almost magical that the ominous clouds moving up from the south-southwest in the early morning seemed to bypass Alotian as the big moment arrived. The media members, wearing shirts acquired at some of the great golf shrines of the world, all donned golf slacks. Tiger wore shorts, sky blue and summer style.
The wireless microphone didn’t work, so a smiling Tiger quickly ditched it and spoke louder. He invited the crowd closer, down from the stands. Saying he took his warmup routine from Nicklaus, Tiger hit sand wedges lightly to get a feel for the club, then began stroking them 115 or so yards. He hit 8-iron draws and fades, noting that all that was different were the position of the ball and a slight change in stance; no change in the grip. He put a big hook on one. With a 4-iron, he hit a looping cut from left to right. He hit the 5-wood, a new addition to his bag in place of the 2-iron, any way he wanted. He hit all those clubs with his low, stinger swing. He bombed 3-woods. He sent a three drives to the farthest reaches, beyond the last target green 300 yards in the distance.
He said his philosophy was to keep it simple. His philosophy on life, he added later, was “Care and Share — if you care about something, share it with others.” He said that when it came to golf, former President Clinton had “interesting math.”
Across the way, Alotian designer Tom Fazio, sitting next to Harriet Stephens, Warren’s wife, wasn’t even noted on this visit; he had commanded the media’s attention in 2004 when Warren showed off his new course.
Tiger fielded questions from the crowd (“What’s your driver’s loft?” “Where do you play the ball in your stance?” “Do you worry about tempo?”), but none from the media. He had been fighting a cold, even had fever, Warren Stephens told us afterward. And, he was still mourning the death of his father, Earl, to cancer a few weeks ago. Woods won’t play in a golf event until the U.S. Open.
He didn’t play more than a couple of holes Tuesday with the corporate sponsors, unless he somehow made a miraculous recovery after the media had left the premises. Warren Stephens, it had been hinted earlier, wanted Woods to play a round on the course and possibly set the course record. That will have to come another day; Woods apparently has a standing invite.
“We’d love for him to come and play the course, anytime he wants,” Warren Stephens said. “I don’t know if his schedule will allow it anytime soon. Like he said, he sometimes practices for 12 hours in a single day, and when you’re sick and miss that time, you have to make it up somewhere … It’s been great to have him here.”
At the U.S. Open or any PGA event, you’re lucky if you’re not 10 rows deep of a crowd watching Woods hit a long iron from the fairway, and forget seeing him set up at the tee or at the green unless you beat everyone else to the course. But Tuesday, even sniffling and coughing, Tiger was up close and personal, kids were smiling and media golf hacks who thought their golf games were at least OK were left thinking maybe they should take up tennis.