ST. LOUIS – The circus is in town at Bellerive Country Club, as it always is when Tiger Woods is in the house. The galleries and media hordes following the game’s biggest name are huge, improprieties are frequent and distractions are aplenty.
Woods has had to learn to live with it. It’s been happening since he was an amateur phenom. It spiked when he set records at Augusta National in 1997, captured the so-called Tiger Slam in 2000-01 and never subsides. And that’s under normal circumstances.
This is St. Louis, which is not a regular PGA Tour stop and has not hosted a major championship since the 1992 PGA. Woods is making his first competitive appearance in this town, 52 years after the Beatles came through. The circus will swell, the big top will be bulging.
“I've looked forward to it,” Woods said of playing at Bellerive. “I was recovering from a surgery in 2008 [BMW Championship]. We all know what happened in 2001 [WGC American Express Championship, which was canceled because of the Sept. 11 attacks]. So, I just remember, when I was watching it as a kid [in ’92] growing up, [Nick Price] go and just blitz the field here and played really well.
“Par's different now than it used to be, and so I think the golf course will, scoring-wise, maybe play a little bit differently than it did back in those years. But I'm looking forward to competing. I'm looking forward to getting out there Thursday, and got a great pairing as well.”
Great, perhaps, if you’re Tiger Woods. If you’re a spectator trying to catch a glimpse, or you’re Justin Thomas or Rory McIlroy trying to concentrate on your shot, “great” is a relative term. Woods is used to pomp and circumstance. But the PGA Championship’s pairing of Woods-McIlroy-Thomas off the 10th tee at 8:23 a.m. will be Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey meets Cirque du Soleil meets Circus Royale (tee times).
“The amount of fans that were out here yesterday was absurd; I've never seen anything like that on a Tuesday,” said Thomas, the defending champion and No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Cue the brass instruments, the bass drum and the glockenspiel. Let the distracting movement and premature shutter clicks begin. First “You da man!” wins.
“You certainly get thrown at the deep end straight away in a group like that,” said McIlroy, No. 5 on the world-ranking hit parade. “I think what Justin and I – even as Justin won last week – have to accept is that 75 percent of the people that are out there watching are watching one guy in that group, and that's it.
“So as long as you know that and you're going to expect a little bit of movement – and there's a lot that goes on around a group that involves Tiger – you just have to be in the right place mentally to accept it and go with it.”
The FedEx Cup champions trilogy is chock-full of credentials: seven PGA Championships, four FedEx Cup titles, 19 major championships (14 by Woods alone) and 102 PGA Tour titles (79 by Woods alone). But it’s not just about credentials. It could be about contention. These aren’t just show horses; they could win, place and show.
Bellerive is a big Robert Trent Jones Sr. course, with lots of doglegs, giant greens and – after heavy rains Tuesday – spongy surfaces. Bounce and roll has left the building, at least for the first couple of days. An air campaign will be more rewarding than balls on the ground. Look for the kind of altitude that cuts corners, soars right-to-left and lands with a thud. They are the kind of characteristics that have favored Zen Drive Master McIlroy in championships past – think Congressional and Valhalla.
Thomas, last week’s winner at Firestone, also is regarded for towering, tape-measure shots. Woods, in his youth, practically invented them.
“Right now, it doesn't really favor anyone because it's playing so soft,” said Woods, who has climbed to No. 51 in the world. “The ball is just plugging out there, and if anything, it favors a guy who hits the ball high. Because we're not going to get any run, it's not going to dry out the rest of the week.
“It's going to be hot, it's going to be wet, and fortunately, I'm one of the guys who hit the ball high and get the ball up in the air, and you just need to get the ball out there.”
Point is, this pairing isn’t simply a crowd-pleasing parlor trick. The circus will surround Woods and his star-studded threesome for the first two days and, who knows, maybe longer. But lest we forget, the circus is supposed to be fun.
“It's nice to play in groups like that, and I guess it focuses you straight away,” McIlroy said. “It's going to be a big atmosphere out there, and I'm looking forward to that.”
Thomas added: “It will be pretty crazy out there. I mean, there's going to be a lot of people; I know that. Yeah, it will be fun. I enjoy playing with Tiger. I really enjoy playing with Rory. We played together in L.A., us three. So, yeah, it will be a cool week.”
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD