Monique was working her corner.
The shapely blonde was adorned in a clingy red Masters shirt and stylish visor as she peered through dark sunglasses on the corner of Washington and Boy Scout roads, a mile from the Augusta National gates. She gracefully held up her right hand to solicit potential customers. A sign with an arrow attached to her swiveling torso invited drivers to, “Pull in.”
“That’s my girl,” Mike said from down the block. “I used to pay a girl $50 a day during spring training but after 17 days that adds up and sometimes she would be off doing something else. I got Monique for $700 four years ago. She’s been a big hit. Everybody took her picture at Daytona.”
“Mike” is a ticket scalper. “Monique” is a robotic mannequin that assists him at sports events. They were among the streetwalkers along Washington Road Monday for the first practice day of Masters week.
Tickets are in short supply. Prices are high. That’s at least in part because Tiger Woods, the human spotlight, has returned to Augusta for the first time in three years and, more noteworthy, is again playing at competitive level.
Practice round tickets were going for $500 Monday, and they’re expected to rise to $700 on Tuesday and Wednesday. Tournament badges are being auctioned off for $6,000 but could go for as much as $10,000 if the world sees Woods on a leaderboard at the end of Thursday, according to “Jimmy,” who’s working his sidewalk office near Taco Bell.
There has been nothing like this. Every sport has its stars. Every star has their legion of fans. But the extent to which Woods still moves the meter is astounding. He competes on a Tour dotted with talented players. He’s 42 years old and is 10 years removed from his last win in a major, 13 years from his last Masters win, five years from his last victory ... anywhere.
But he has dominated the buildup the last two weeks and the early scene this week. Through Monday’s practice, fans followed him like Moses, waiting for him to part Rae’s Creek.
They stood as thick as 16 deep as he practiced approach shots on the practice range. They shifted positions in droves when he walked 20 yards to work on his chipping. They followed Woods onto the course, and when he eagled No. 2, they erupted with the once familiar “Tiger roar” that could be heard several holes away.
This was a practice round.
On a Monday.
This was against a backdrop of a tournament field that includes Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and other less significant beings at the top of the world rankings.
It may seem like a strange question but here goes: Does golf still need Tiger Woods?
“There’s no question about it,” said Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach. “They talk about all of these great young players today, and I get it. But there’s no Tiger Woods out there. Justin Thomas is a phenomenal player, don’t get me wrong. But he missed six cuts last year. Let’s get real for a second. Nobody is near Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour. If the game doesn’t need, the game certainly wants him back.”
Woods fell personally and professionally. His marriage unraveled. The salacious details of his personal life played out on TMZ and the world stage. His health declined and his game spiraled with it. He had four back surgeries, including spinal fusion.
When it seemed like things could get no worse, Woods was arrested last May for being under the influence of drugs and alcohol and asleep in his car, near his home in Jupiter, Fla. He checked himself into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center the following month for an addiction to painkillers.
People love a comeback story. People also are divided into two categories: Those who love Woods and those who hate Woods but love watching him.
“He has transcended the sport in so many ways,” Haney said. “He’s unique in so many ways. People starting watching golf because of Tiger Woods. He dominated in a way nobody dominated before and now they’re fascinated so see if he can come back.”
When Woods finished second at the Valspar Championship and fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March – firing eight consecutive rounds of 67 to 70 – television ratings blew through the roof. The find round of the Valspar earned the highest rating for any Tour event since 2013.
Nielsen has a metric called the “Awareness” index, like a Q-score. Woods’ score is 84. The next closest golfer is Phil Mickelson at 53. Then there’s another gap before Jordan Spieth (32), Rory McIlroy (32) and Justin Rose (23).
Last year’s Masters had a tremendous storyline. A suddenly matured Sergio Garcia won the first major of his career. But the tournament had its lowest TV ratings in 13 years. (Garcia didn’t make Nielsen’s “Awareness” leaderboard.)
No worries. Tiger’s back.
“What I like to look at is the trickle-down effect, (Wood’s) collateral influence,” Curtis Strange said. “There’s more energy than there’s ever been on the practice tee, on the first tee, and where ever he is.”
Jason Day labeled Woods “an entertainer.”
“When it comes to Tiger and Tigermania, everyone wants to see him win, and win the way he did before,” he said. “There’s going to be a buzz this week with Tiger being on the grounds.”
As for the remaining obsession with Woods, Day said, “I’m not amazed by it. He was huge back in ‘97 and he’s still huge now. He was the most recognized athlete for a good chunk of years and he put golf on the map for a lot of young players.”
Mike had one practice round ticket left. An older gentleman offered $400. Mike held out for $500 but told the man he would take $400 cash and $100 on a credit card.
“Too expensive,” the man said.
They talked for a while. More than 15 minutes passed.
“You could be in there right now,” Mike finally said.
“Would you take $450 with $100 on a credit card?” the gentleman said.
“Sure,” Mike responded.
The laws of economics: supply and demand and Tiger Woods.
PODCAST: Click here for episode 80 of “We Never Played The Game” podcast. Masters preview with the AJC’s Steve Hummer.
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