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Day one of the 1997 United States Open.
At exactly noon, Tiger Woods, once known as Eldrick, now known as golf's messiah, stepped onto the first tee at the Congressional Country Club with playing partners Steve Jones and Tom Lehman. Jones was the defending Open champion. Lehman was the reigning British Open champion. Among the thousands pressed against the gallery ropes, five and six deep from tee to green, there might have been a hundred who were there to see the two Open titleholders.
Everyone else had come to see Tiger. He was twenty-one years old, a multi-multi-millionaire, and already a one-name athlete, as in Michael or
Shaq, Deion or The Shark. Only, at that moment Tiger was bigger than all of them. Even Michael. He was nine weeks removed from one of the most stunning performances in the history of sports, a twelve-shot victory in the Masters that had left people in golf groping for words to describe what they had seen. And what they had seen was impossible. "He's a boy among men," Tom Watson had said at the time. "And he's teaching the men a lesson."
The Masters had elevated Woods to a level of fame that perhaps no athlete other than Muhammad Ali had ever achieved. People who knew absolutely nothing about golf, cared not at all about the sport, stopped to watch
Tiger play. Children who once wanted to "be like Mike" and slam-dunk from the free-throw line now wanted to be Tiger and hit 350-yard drives. He signed endorsement contracts for staggering amounts of money. He blew off the president of the United States and Rachel Robinson, the widow of the century's most important athleteand made no apologies for it. He didn't have to. He was Tiger. They weren't.
His arrival on the grounds of Congressional at the start of the week had made a presidential motorcade look understated. Every time he moved,
thousands moved with him. He was surrounded by so many security people that even other players were hesitant to approach him for fear they might get knocked backward by a large, unsmiling man in sunglasses.
Miraculously, Woods seemed perfectly at ease with it all. At one point,
lingering on the driving range while dozens of media types stood at a respectful distance, Woods looked at a couple of friends and said, "Watch this."
He took five steps to his left, as if to leave the range. The security force immediately began to form a wedge, advance men flying toward the ropes to clear the area lest some fan momentarily impede Tiger's exit. The media also began moving. Cameras were hoisted onto shoulders, tape recorders began whirring, notebooks were scribbled in. Then Tiger stopped.
The wedge stopped instantly. The media, of course, also stopped. Tiger smiled, turned, and walked back to where he had been standing. It was a remarkable display of absolute power.