By DOUG FERGUSON
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The gallery stood a dozen rows deep and spilled down both sides of the fairway, the kind of scene Tiger Woods is used to seeing on the weekend at a major championship. This was only a pro-am round Wednesday at the Wachovia Championship.
And for once, Woods felt part of the crowd.
This is what happens when two of the most celebrated icons in sports are together on the golf course in a public event for the first time. Woods, owner of 12 majors, gladly shared the stage at Quail Hollow with Michael Jordan, owner of six NBA titles and five MVPs.
“This is great,” Woods said as he waited on the 10th tee. “No one knows I’m here.”
That much was clear when he walked out of the clubhouse toward the practice range and some three dozen people didn’t even realize he was there because their eyes trained on Jordan pulling his car up to the valet.
Jordan is part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, and although he doesn’t spend much time in town, he wanted to play in the pro-am. Woods first played golf with Jordan in 1997 in Chicago. While they often get together on the golf course, his camp asked tournament officials if they could be paired on Wednesday.
“We know a few people,” Woods said with a laugh. “No, the tournament was nice enough to put us together. He’s been like my big brother, so it’s been great to have him be part of my life. We had a great time today. We always have a great time.”
For a pro-am round, it did not lack for entertainment.
Woods and Jordan needle each other endlessly during their private rounds, and they brought the banter to Quail Hollow.
With a cigar in his mouth, Jordan made an 8-foot par putt on the seventh hole, then mimicked Woods as he walked off the green, delivering a fist-pump in slow motion and holding his pose until he was sure Woods was looking.
The showmanship picked up on the back nine.
Woods was waiting for the 11th fairway to clear when Jordan walked by and kicked his ball off the tee toward a young boy in the gallery. “You can have it,” Jordan told the boy.
Woods re-teed, and at the top of his back swing, Jordan cleared his throat loud enough to make Woods stop. The world’s No. 1 player set up over the ball again and hit a hard draw down the middle of the fairway, locking eyes with Jordan in a mock staredown. Jordan then ripped his driver down the fairway, and as he stooped to pick up his tee, looked back at Woods and returned the stare.
The chatter was endless, and as always, Jordan was doing most of the talking. He was asked after the round how many majors Woods might have won if he had to be paired with Jordan during the final round.
“Not as many,” Jordan said. “I can get in his head.”
Woods doesn’t argue.
“He wins all the time,” Woods said of the trash-talking battle. “I’ll just throw out a jab every now and then, but basically this is my home court, so it’s a little easier for me. On his court, it would be a little different deal.”
Woods can pick his moments, though.
Jordan almost chipped into the water from right of the 17th green, but the ball stopped on the last patch of land. Woods scooped his ball up with the putter to flip it to Jordan. And, with Jordan holding out his hand, Woods flipped the ball backward and into the lake.
Filling out their threesome was Skipper Beck, who owns an import car dealership (he supplies the courtesy cars at the tournament) and is a minority investor of the Bobcats.
“I’m comfortable being around Michael,” he said. “Throw Tiger in the mix, and I tightened up a little bit.”
What added the sizzle to the Tiger & Mike show was the amount of people watching, which was extraordinary for a pro-am round.
Every seat in the grandstand behind the practice range was taken at 7 a.m., and fans stood four-deep behind the ropes for a 75-yard stretch down the range, all of them straining to see Woods and Jordan hitting balls. Almost everyone had a camera, and an opinion.
“No cigar until you make par,” one man yelled out to Jordan, who lit up his first cigar on the second tee.
Even with so many people, it wasn’t hard to distinguish between golf fans and sports fans. Jordan hit from the forward tees, and drew the largest bunch of people. The golf fans went all the way back at every tee to take pictures of Woods.
The two have made millions pitching Nike products (although Jordan had Ping clubs in his bag). They often talk about the similarities in their lives, whether it’s coping with celebrity or how to gain a competitive edge.
“We talk about our respective sports – which is harder, to win six championships or four Masters?” Jordan said. “I think it’s tougher for him. As an individual, you’re playing against so many different opponents. In my game, if I have a bad day, I’ve got someone to cover for me. For the most part, he does it by himself.”
Woods has leaned on Jordan for advice since winning his first Masters at age 21 in 1997 and says he can “cherry pick the knowledge he’s accumulated over the years.”
“We’re not the only ones,” he said. “But because we’re such great friends, I’ve been able to have a person I can talk to on all these subjects because he basically went through it before me. Next to Muhammad Ali, he’s probably the most iconic figure athleticwise that America has ever had.”
And where does Woods fit in?
“I’m somewhere down the list,” he said.
Those conversations are for the grill room at private clubs, when they don’t have an audience. This was mostly about golf, and the fans did not go home disappointed. It might be the biggest buzz all week at the Wachovia Championship.
So big, in fact, that also playing the pro-am Wednesday was Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning. Hardly anyone noticed.