The first time Tiger Woods played in Ireland, on a buddies trip before the 1998 Open, he was worried that the crowd walking with him down the fairways at Waterville would get too close.
The late Payne Stewart, sensing his nerves, put an arm around his shoulder. ‘Ah Tiger, you never have to worry about the crowds here,’ Stewart reassured him. ‘They’ll show you all the respect and affection you need.’
Twenty-five years on, Tiger was back in Ireland drawing an extraordinary gathering to the first tee at the JP McManus pro-am on Monday. Veteran Irish pro Des Smyth, taking up announcing duties, echoed Stewart’s words from long ago in capturing the mood of the 40,000 spectators perfectly. ‘On the first tee, and I hope he won’t mind me taking the liberty, the ONE AND ONLY Tiger Woods!’ he said.
This was the first time Tiger had been seen since withdrawing from May’s US PGA Championship in a great deal of pain after the third round. He was relaxed enough in the build-up at Adare Manor, as Leona Maguire took advantage of a tee-time just after his to have a chat.
The former tennis world number one is ‘pumped’ to represent female athletes at golf’s inaugural Icon Series.
‘I got a picture with him too!’ said the 27-year-old, demonstrating that even Ireland’s greatest female golfer can be awe-struck.
How did Tiger look, with the Open now just nine days away? The heart sank when he told a Sky Sports interviewer on the first tee that he did not know how he would be able to negotiate driving a cart through the crowds.
More encouraging was him forsaking the buggy after a fine approach from the middle of the first fairway to walk to the green. He ambled along with that limping shuffle we grew accustomed to at the Masters in April but at least there were no grimaces over the opening holes, as there were in Tulsa in May.
This was just Tiger’s eighth round in public in the 16 months, since his car accident. As with the other seven, it emphasised that the hardest thing for the 46-year-old these days is the physical challenge. His technique looks as sound as ever.
Adare Manor will host the 2027 Ryder Cup and a Ryder Cup-style crowd followed the game’s ultimate Pied Piper, despite the bogeys racking up. No one was bothered about his score.
It was perhaps the most illustrious pro-am field ever assembled, with 10 of the world’s top 12, including No 1 Scottie Scheffler and No 2 Rory McIlroy. All have bought into JP’s vision for this two-day event being staged for the first time in 12 years, and expected to raise £45million for local charities.
Most will then move on to the Scottish Open on Thursday, which has the strongest field for any event in the history of the DP World Tour.
Tiger, naturally, will not be among them. He will remain at Adare Manor for the rest of the week before moving on to St Andrews and his favourite course in the world. If nothing else, the heartfelt reception in Limerick will certainly stand him in good stead for the raw emotion that lies ahead at the Home of Golf.
Whisper it around the Home of Golf but here is a little Open secret regarding Britain’s newest major champion Matt Fitzpatrick: he is not a fan of the Old Course at St Andrews.
Or at least he wasn’t back in March, when he considered it a course that could be bullied by the big bombers. ‘Bryson DeChambeau will probably win the Claret Jug driving every par four,’ was his rather pithy verdict to Sportsmail.
Now that he is no mean hitter himself and bolstered by the confidence of stepping on to the first tee next week as the US Open champion following his victory at Brookline, it will be interesting to see if the 27-year-old from Sheffield undergoes a Bobby Jones-style change of heart.
After all, with his low ball flight and demon putting stroke, there is no obvious reason why it should not suit him.