Tiger has sports world by the tail, again
The Masters, which begins on Thursday, is the most anticipated event on the calendar for most golf fans.
However, this year it really is a can’t miss event for any sports fan.
For the first time in five years, Tiger Woods is competing with a legitimate chance to win his fifth green jacket.
After four back surgeries, including a spinal fusion surgery, Woods has emerged from his cave this spring, and from coast to coast, he has shown so much promise that he is now the betting favorite to win at Augusta.
I was fortunate enough to follow Woods at the tournament at breathtaking Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles at his pro-am round and for two rounds and the pro-am round and four rounds at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida — 144 holes.
On Wednesday morning at Riviera, with the sun just barely rising, I fought through a huge crowd to see Woods take his first swing at 6:45 a.m.
Actor Mark Wahlberg was playing with Tiger, and as the fans snapped pictures of Wahlberg, I positioned myself near the starters’ tent, and suddenly he emerged from the tent with a huge smile on his face, just a few feet from where I was standing.
The crowd let out a loud roar and that roar followed Tiger from Los Angeles to the Honda, where he finished 12th, to Tampa, where he finished second, to Orlando, where he finished fifth.
Tiger looks as healthy as ever and certainly does not look like someone who had spinal fusion surgery.
I walked with a clearly injured Tiger during the 2014 Honda Classic when he could barely pick his ball out of the cup because of searing pain in his back.
At the 2018 Genesis, he was driving the ball almost everywhere but the fairway. This forced him to make difficult shots from the side of hills, around trees and in deep rough.
Time and again, he made miraculous shots without showing any sign of discomfort. Tiger looks as fierce and determined as ever.
However, he was smiling to the crowd, talking to his pro-am partners and generally looking like he was having a great time.
His caddie, Joe LaCava, should be given a ton of credit. Unlike his former caddie, Steve Williams, who fought with the crowds, LaCava hands out gloves and balls and tees to fans.
What is shocking to everyone is that Tiger, after spinal fusion surgery, is swinging harder than anyone else on the tour.
The crowds at the tournaments have broken all records to the point that they needed to add additional parking lots in Tampa.
There are usually fans at the tee box, in the middle of the fairway, and the green following the leaders. When Tiger is playing, the fans are two and three deep down the entire fairway.
The top golfers in the world — Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia and Jason Day, even Phil Mickelson — are used to huge galleries, but nothing compares to the crowds following Tiger. He has the home-field advantage on each of the 18 holes.
Hundreds of books and movies have been written about vanquished kings trying to reclaim their thrones.
Starting Thursday, we will all get to see it unfold before our eyes.
Ira Kaufman is an Altoona native, attorney and traveling sports fan. He resides in New York City.