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Tiger Woods mania hits Innisbrook

World's most watched golfer begins play at Valspar Championship.
Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 10th hole during the Valspar Championship Pro-Am on Wednesday. (JIM DAMASKE | Times)

PALM HARBOR — It's 10 minutes shy of 7 a.m., the sun has barely risen and already more than 100 people have gathered around the first tee of the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook. Up comes the man of the hour. Actually, make that the man of the year for the Valspar Championship.

"Please welcome … Tiger Woods."

Never has Innisbrook seen anything quite like this. Arguably the greatest golfer of all time touches the bill of his cap, ever so slightly nods and waves to a wide-eyed crowd that seems more awestruck than enthusiastic. It's a crisp Wednesday morning and Woods is playing in a pro-am with three really lucky amateurs, including the president of the tournament's title sponsor.

Woods places the ball on his tee. One cellphone camera after another pops into the air as Woods pulls back his driver. A violent THWACK strikes the ball.

"Holy (expletive)," whispers a man in the crowd. "Gawwwwd! Would you look at that."

The drive is dead, solid perfect and about a million miles down the fairway.
Others shout out, as if they all know Woods personally.

"Way to go, Tiger!"

"Nice ball, Tiger."

"Atta boy, T!"

"Hey, Tiger, good luck this week."

And so begins a round of golf with the most famous golfer of his generation, maybe of any generation. Get ready to witness the power of Woods, who is playing at Innisbrook for the first time since 1996. Not that Woods remembers it.

"Not a lot," Woods said. "It was 22 years ago."

That's why, almost every hole, someone in the crowd shouts, "Thanks for coming, Tiger."

Woods responds with a smile.

"Fantastic so far," Woods said when asked about how the crowd is treating him. "They were nice (Tuesday) and they were great (Wednesday)."
But it isn't easy being Woods. Even a pro-am like Wednesday's ends up drawing more fans than most golfers normally get. The crowd got bigger with each hole Wednesday and by the end of what was essentially a practice round, there were easily 600 or so stalking Woods. Just wait until the tournament actually begins Thursday and thousands follow his every move.

It's like seeing a shooting star.

More than 200 media credentials were distributed — about 50 more than normal. Two Pinellas County Sheriff's deputies are always just a few steps away.

Everyone, including Woods, seems to understand that this is a very big deal. Woods is used to it, but that doesn't make it any easier. Every now and then, Woods give a quick glance out of the corner of his eye to whoever happens to be standing near him.

And at that moment, you realize that Woods lives so much of his life in a fishbowl. He's on display and fans comment on his every little movement — a smile, a smirk, a sigh. He has lived like this for most of his 42 years.

He has been paid quite well for his troubles, quite possibly well over a billion if you count endorsements. But does one ever get truly comfortable being scrutinized and judged with literally every step?

Rory McIlroy, maybe the most popular name in golf after Woods, estimates that Woods gives up two shots a tournament because of the enormous crowds he attracts and all the insanity that comes with it.

More than anyone, Woods attracts the non-golf fans, those who are not familiar or respectful of the game's etiquette. Novice fans are good for the sport, not so good for Woods.

"Whoever's teeing off at 8:30 in the morning doesn't get that and can just go about his business and just do his thing," McIlroy said back in February. "(Woods) has to deal with that every single time he goes out to play."

Even for a practice round at 6:50 in the morning.

Woods has always contended that it's no big deal. On one hand, he has become a master at tuning out the outrageous things he needs to tune out while playing — dumb comments, requests for autographs and selfies and high fives.

But he does acknowledge those who thanked him for coming to Innisbrook, or hellos from people he knows or might have met in the past.

So doesn't that mean, deep down, that he hears everything?

Woods looked comfortable Wednesday. He chatted up his playing partners. He smiled often and easily. He hit more good shots than bad. He posed for a photo with some Air Force guys from MacDill. He ate a freshly-made slider on the back nine. And he did sign one autograph on the course for a 5-year-old kid named Harrison Connerty from Trinity, then a few more after his round was complete.

All in all, not your typical pro-am round of golf. Thursday will be even crazier. And this weekend will be crazier than that, especially if Woods is in contention.

For Innisbrook, it would go down as the biggest, wildest weekend ever. For Woods? Just another typical week at work.

Contact Tom Jones at Follow @tomwjones