Galleries soar as Woods roars on return

Tiger Woods playing a shot from the gallery during the third round of the Valspar Championship.
Tiger Woods playing a shot from the gallery during the third round of the Valspar Championship.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES • American Jordan Spieth noted at the Valspar Championship two weeks ago that the roars were a little louder in the galleries, and all the golf fans present were simply looking for any reason to cheer.

So rowdy were the crowds the past two months that four-time Major winner Rory McIlroy remarked that he needed painkillers to deal with a headache after playing a round at the Genesis Open last month.

"There is certainly an energy about the gallery that you do not have anywhere else," Spieth said.

Former world No. 1 Tiger Woods is back, and so are the galleries as the 14-time Major champion sent jolts of excitement through his fans in all five of his starts on the PGA Tour since the turn of the year.

After a long absence from the game and a spinal fusion surgery last April, his comeback and return to form have energised golf in ways not seen since he dominated the sport.

Tigermania was notably back at the 42-year-old's tournaments this year - the Farmers Insurance Open (T23), the Genesis Open (missed cut), the Honda Classic (12th), the Valspar Championship (T2) and the Arnold Palmer Invitational (T5).

  • TIGERMANIA IN NUMBERS

  • 38,000

    Increase in attendance at the Valspar Championship.

  • 3.26

    Overnight television rating for the third round at Valspar, the highest-rated PGA Tour third round since 2006.

A press release by the organisers of the Honda Classic pointed to a 20,000 attendance increase from last year - 225,000 visited this year - and was headlined with the words: "Propelled by the return of Tiger Woods".

Kenneth Kennerly, the tournament's executive director, said: "The energy level at the tournament was at an all-time high."

He was not wrong to claim that Woods was behind this surge.

The Valspar Championship broke its attendance record - 150,000 fans were present compared to 112,000 last year.

According to ESPN, Valspar tournament director Tracy West said once she knew Woods had confirmed he will be playing at the event for the first time in his career, she and her team put together a plan to accommodate more fans.

The event opened up 6,000 more parking spaces and took the necessary measures to house 12,000 to 15,000 extra spectators a day.

"Our golf course has only so much room, so we have to do what we can to comfortably balance the excitement of him coming but not making it too crazy so that people don't enjoy it," she said.

The television ratings were also overwhelming.

The Saturday round of the Valspar Championship had a 3.26 overnight rating, which was the highest-rated third round for a PGA Tour event (excluding Majors) since 2006.

Sunday recorded a 5.11 overnight rating - the highest-rated golf broadcast other than the Masters since the PGA Championship in 2015 (5.14).

It was also more than 40 per cent higher than the final rounds of last year's US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship.

Former Singapore golfer Lam Chih Bing said: "I always say there are only two guys I wake up for in the middle of the night: Tiger and Phil (Mickelson).

"So there have been a couple of Monday mornings recently when I have gone to work like a zombie."

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan knows all about Woods' pulling power.

"It's a story that the world is finding very compelling and... that's what you want as a business," he told CNN.

"We have grown over the last few years as these new players have come forward, but nobody has produced more compelling television in sport over the last 20 years than Tiger Woods."

The support for Woods is undeniable and it is not limited to fans and organisers.

"I said a couple of times if I don't win this thing I actually want Tiger to win it," Valspar champion Paul Casey said at his press conference.

At this month's Arnold Palmer Invitational - where ticket sales were up more than 50 per cent from last year according to pga.com - Woods sparked a massive roar from the crowd after he climbed to the top of the early first-round leaderboard following a 71-foot birdie putt on the seventh.

"The electricity that courses through the crowds when Woods is playing well just seems to kind of elevate and, for some reason, it just kind of gets me going," said Patrick Reed, who tied with Woods at four under after the first round.

For the man himself, he is just "having fun".

"The atmosphere we've been able to play in front of since I've come back has been absolutely incredible," Woods said.

"It feels great the people are so supportive. It has been a great atmosphere overall since I've come back."

REUTERS, NYTIMES, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2018, with the headline 'Galleries soar as Woods roars on return'. Print Edition | Subscribe