Late Thursday morning, they launched the 19th Tour Championship at East Lake. Last year, the 18th ended in the golf equivalent of a Black Friday stampede at Walmart. As Tiger Woods came up No. 18, with his first victory in five years in sight, it seemed like a dam broke and a hooting flood of humanity swept over the fairway. No flimsy gallery rope could contain the joy.
This year, it began, very quietly, with Lucas Glover and Jason Kokrak first off the tee. Yeah, you think they’re going to have trouble even approximating the energy of a year ago? They maybe never will.
Along with all the other changes out here — change in scoring, change in date, change in money — there will be very much a change in the static charge of the week. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just timing, the natural consequence of following the best moment the Tour Championship will ever know.
This year’s tournament will have its own intrigues — inevitable with 17 of the top 20 players in the world sorting through this new staggered scoring system. It will be a good show on a terrific and spectator-friendly course. Tickets for the hospitality areas that sprout here in toadstool profusion were in high demand, we’re told. Although some early predictions that East Lake could sell out some days will fall short because there is no Woods to make that happen.
Woods didn’t make the field this year, and even if he did, his game was in no shape to recreate the buzz of 2018.
The uniquely special nature of what we witnessed then still resonates a year later — and will for years to come. It was for Woods and for golf the harbinger of seven months later just a piece over on I-20 at the Masters. Only at Augusta, they’d have called out the National Guard had the fans even leaned too heavily on the ropes. At East Lake, they just let the Woods celebration spill over onto the course.
His peers didn’t know quite what to do, other than to get out of the way. Justin Rose won the FedEx Cup that day, but does it count if nobody noticed? Woods took up all the oxygen on the course with his tournament victory.
“When I was tapping in to win the FedEx Cup, I could see the chaos streaming down the 18th fairway,” Rose recalled this week. “I hit my putt pretty quickly because I could see the galleries were all in the fairway. They were just sweeping down the last hole. And I kind of felt like if I knocked it three, four feet past and had to mark, wait for my playing partner to finish, I could be in a situation where all the chaos was on top of me. There was a little bit of pressure to get it done quickly and get it done easily.”
Celebrities marveled. Atlanta-based performer Big Boi was there and as he told PGA Tour Entertainment later, “The atmosphere was incredible, man. It was almost like a concert, you know? There was a lot of positive energy. Everybody was rooting for Tiger, and you know to see him come back and come back in a major way like that. I think you know the whole city was behind him, and he made it count.”
Fans became extreme cross-country runners.
As one, Lauren Evans, told the Tour, “We were all running toward him until they stopped us with a rope. Yes, we ran through a bunker. My friend kind of tripped into it once we started running and then we just sort of exchanged a look, like we're gonna run through the bunker. Everyone followed us. I don't know how we made it up the other side. It's pretty steep, but we made it somehow.”
The grandson of Bobby Jones, the patron saint of this place, was in the clubhouse but still very much in the blast zone as Woods finished on 18.
“The roar was so loud that this building actually vibrated, you could actually see water kind of move just a little bit on top of the glasses,” Bobby Jones IV told the Tour. “I could actually feel the roar. It's a moment I'll never forget. Even though the Tour Championship doesn't quite make a major championship, that's got to be one of the greatest moments that I'll ever remember in the game of golf.”
And the commissioner became a fan.
“The thing I'll never forget just was the noise coming from the 18th tee all the way up to the 18th green,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said earlier this week. “And then as he made his walk, you felt it here, you felt it there. Just an entire property willing a player to win. It was palpable. You could just feel it in your bones.”
This week will be a good show, no doubt. But it can’t hope to stand eye-to-eye with the day they turned East Lake into a mosh pit