BETHESDA -- I am Tiger Woods' gallery. And something tells me I'm not alone.
If the overall crowd count of 30,000 at Congressional Country Club is accurate, then 29,000 of them are pressed around me here at the first tee, sucking the air dry with their nervous chatter as they elbow for position like NBA big men in the paint.
It is a rainbow coalition of U.S. Open golf fans: whites, Asians, more African-Americans than you've seen on a course in your lifetime. Around me are affluent professionals in $75 designer golf shirts and gold bracelets, working stiffs in Budweiser T-shirts, senior citizens, an army of squealing kids with Tiger caps and those little periscopes they sell at every tournament at rip-off prices.
And all of us are joined by a common bond.
We are not here to see Tiger putt. We are not here to see Tiger chip. We are not here to see Tiger hit feathery pitch shots onto the pool-table-fast greens.
No, what unites us is this: We want to see Tiger reach into that black Titleist bag, which looks to be the size of a Plymouth Voyager, and pull out the driver.
Then we want to see him spank the ball so hard it ends up in Vermont, so we can turn to each other and shout Did you see that?! with the kind of stunned look you'd get if you just saw someone levitate.
We want Tiger to send the ball into orbit, so that night at the dinner table we can lift a forkful of string beans to our mouths and remark casually: Yeah, that drive he hit on 15? I was right there. I mean he crushed it! Three-hundred twenty-five yards, easy!
Yes, that's what we want to see.
At the moment, though, it's hard to see much of anything. We are seven deep as the threesome of Tom Lehman, Steve Jones and Tiger Woods is introduced. And the two guys in front of me are the size of baby sequoias.
Suddenly, though, divine intervention. It's almost 90 degrees, with the same breezy feel as a rice paddy in Thailand. And just as the announcer intones "Tiger Woods, Windermere, Florida," someone faints two rows in front of me.
It's a boy of about 16. He slumps slowly to the ground, but his head bangs the cart path hard. It makes a sickening thud, like a watermelon dropped to the pavement.
The crowd parts respectfully, and emergency medical techs swarm around him within seconds. The good news is: The kid is OK. Even better for me, I now have an unobstructed view of Tiger over the crouching EMTs.
Hey, it's a dog-eat-dog world in a Tiger gallery. If we could rely on someone blacking out for us to get a better view, most of us would root hard for a heat wave and a total ban of all liquids on the course.
Now Tiger smacks a 1-iron, the club tracing a blurry parabola in the sky and crossing the tee with a low whoosh!, the ball coming to rest some 250 yards down the fairway, nestled in the grass like a bright cotton ball.
For a moment, the crowd is silent, as if uncertain of what it has just seen: a golf swing so perfect it should be set to music.
Then whoops and cheers of "TI-GER! TI-GER!" erupt. And then the great rock 'n' roll audience that is a Tiger Woods gallery begins lumbering down the fairway.
As we set off, I find myself next to the two baby sequoias who'd been blocking my view. One is Dwayne Allen, 35, of Herndon, Va., and the other is Charles Snowden, 41, from the District. They're discussing Tiger Woods' club-speed in tones normally reserved for professors at Johns Hopkins.
"Tiger has just captured my imagination," Snowden says. "I like folks who strive for perfection. I never saw Picasso paint or Beethoven write music. But I'm seeing greatness here today."
As we walk on, I make a mental note not to stand behind these two guys again. Not only are they tall, they look way too fit to faint.
A Tiger Woods gallery is unlike any other in golf. From the air, it looks like a huge serpent slithering from one hole to the next, swallowing the tee box and then splitting itself in half to engulf both sides of the fairway before finally devouring the green.
It is more raucous than any other gallery. It has a far younger demographic. Today there are also some 200 sweaty members of the media walking inside the ropes, mostly fat guys with fish-belly-white skin toting tons of photographic equipment and reporters on the "all Tiger, all the time" beat.
It's a gallery within a gallery. Often, this does not sit well with the fans, who have paid $40 a ticket only to have the vultures of the press block their view of Tiger and his sweet swing.
Then there is Tiger's security retinue, which seems to rival the pope's.
Trailing Woods at times are various personal bodyguards and least six grim-faced Montgomery County police officers, wires dangling from their ears in classic Secret Service fashion.
Still, all the muscle is definitely needed. Tigermania is in full frenzy here at Congressional. The marshals have never seen anything like the crowds this week.
One, Billy McMurtry, 27, from Bethesda, just shakes his head and whispers, "unbelievable" when asked about the wave after wave of humanity following golf's newest superstar.
He is about to say more when a Japanese TV crew suddenly scurries out into the middle of the fairway as Tiger walks by after hitting his approach shot to the third hole.
This is a grievous breach of the rules for covering golf. McMurtry runs after the offenders and delivers a severe tongue-lashing, which loses much of its effect with the discovery that none of the crew speaks English.
The fans all have their strategies for getting close to their hero. Everyone wants to see Tiger tee off, to see the effortless swing and the ball exploding off the tee, low and fast like a SAM missile.
If Tiger's on the fifth tee, fans will race ahead to the sixth and even the seventh tee to stake out their territory. Congressional's monster fairways (the course is 7,213 yards long) provide lots of other opportunities to see Tiger take a full swing, and his wonderful touch around the greens has the viewing areas there packed, too.
The mantra for this crowd is clear: Only Tiger matters. And that point is driven home dramatically as we walk up the ninth fairway and see the threesome of Andrew Morse, Chris Smith and Mike Swartz hitting their second shots on an adjacent fairway.
Morse, Smith and Swartz are not exactly golfing legends, but this is ridiculous. There are maybe 50 people following them. I've seen bigger crowds at a Jiffy Lube on Saturday morning.
"Tell Tiger I said hello," says a U.S. Open official wistfully as he trails behind the forgotten trio. He looks like a man watching a PBS documentary on insects while a wild party is going on next door.
A quick story of fanaticism taken to the nth degree. As the Tiger Woods gallery surges around the sixth hole, an attractive pregnant woman can be seen sitting in the shade of a nearby tree.
No, check that.
This woman is not just pregnant. She is very pregnant. As in eight-months-plus pregnant. As in Honey, where's the cell phone?! pregnant.
It turns out her name is Pam Ostroski, 36, a housewife from Yardley, Pa., with two teen-agers back home.
"My husband is around here somewhere," she says with a laugh. "He left me 'cause I can't walk anymore. Meanwhile, I'm having Braxton-Hicks contractions."
At the word "contractions," panic begins gnawing in my gut and I start windmilling my arms to signal the EMTs. She assures me she's OK.
As gently as possible, I ask her just why the hell she's out here on a sweltering day, on a packed golf course, in her condition.
The two teen-agers at home -- where were they born, the Preakness infield?
"I just wanted to follow Tiger," she says. "I find him very interesting. And I really respect him."
Look, I tell her, I find Tiger interesting, too. And I respect him and all that business. But, still.
As we head to the seventh tee, many in the crowd seem relieved that Ostroski has not gone into labor. Although, if she occupied a prime viewing spot and you were behind her when she started to deliver
4 It presents a host of possibilities, that's all.
At just 21, Tiger Woods is an impossibly mature athlete. In only his second year as a pro, he has five tour wins, including the Masters this spring, which he won by a whopping 12 strokes in what may well be the most pressurized setting in golf.
Look what the Masters did to Greg Norman two years ago. With a four-stroke lead going into the final round, he folded like a bridge table.
To this day he wears the Thousand Yard Stare of a man haunted by a horrible memory he can't shake.
But Tiger Woods is not a god. He is not infallible. Yesterday, he shot a sizzling 3-under-par 67. But on this day, after shooting 2-under-par through 10 holes, the wheels are falling off the cart. And Tiger, as you may imagine, is not in a swell mood.
Over the final eight holes, he will shoot 6-over-par, with two double bogeys and enough trips into the rough to qualify for a courtesy Weed-Whacker.
Now, on the 15th hole, he has hooked his drive into the left rough.
Although he has barely acknowledged the crowd all day, concentrating grimly on his golf, the gallery is again wildly supportive as he approaches his ball.
"It's not too late, Tiger!"
"We're with you, Tiger!"
Suddenly, as the noise dies down, a little boy, maybe 3 years old, with a cherubic face, cries out: "Hi, Ti-guh!"
The gallery erupts in laughter. But Tiger Woods does not laugh. Tiger Woods does not smile. Instead, he slams his driver into the bag that caddy "Fluff" Cowan holds and mutters something under his breath.
On his next shot, the notorious Congressional rough, 6 to 8 inches high in some parts, will twist the club in his hand and he will shank it, this time into the right rough.
From the gallery, there is only mournful silence until he taps in for bogey.
This is something that seems to genuinely surprise the crowd: mortal golf from a 21-year-old phenom destined for immortality.
The back nine is a nightmare for Tiger Woods. He pars the 16th and 17th holes. On the 190-yard par-3 18th, a picture-postcard setting with a peninsula green surrounded by the largest lake on the course, he rainbows a 7-iron left of the hole.
It hits a grassy bank, bounces twice and rolls into the water. The crowd groans, with a pain so real you'd think it was their Titleist swimming with the fishes.
As he walks toward the green, Tiger looks like a man who has just swallowed Drano. Or wants to.
But when he putts out a few minutes later, the mood changes dramatically. Suddenly, an ungodly noise wells up from the amphitheater setting, a cheering sound that seems to swell and reverberate through the knolls until you wonder if it's ever going to stop.
A pained smile, a quick wave, and Tiger is gone, scooting up the players-only entrance to the clubhouse.
Still, the gallery got what it came for.
The Congressional course has just gored young Tiger Woods. But this is the U.S. Open. And he is still their man.
0 And with this man, there is always tomorrow.
Pub Date: 6/14/97