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USATSI

When is the last time Tiger Woods played four rounds of tournament golf on an empty course? It’s not unreasonable to think it’s been three decades since this was the case. Since Woods turned pro, not only has he had crowds following him around, he’s had the largest crowds of anyone in any event he plays.

Think about the Tour Championship in 2018 — that iconic scene with thousands (tens of thousands?) marching up No. 18 at East Lake behind him as he grabbed his first win in five years. That was an exaggerated version of what Woods normally deals with at events, but it wasn’t that exaggerated.

From that drama to this week at the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village in Ohio where Woods will have exactly zero fans accompanying him around as he tries to win for a record-setting 83rd time on the PGA Tour. The only folks who will see him perform live will be his playing partners, caddies and a smattering of broadcasters, volunteers and essential personnel on the course at Muirfield Village.

There have been moments here and there throughout his career. Woods mentioned one from an event he won in Washington, D.C. in 2012. Interestingly, last time he won — at the Zozo Championship last fall — one of his rounds was fan-less. There was another early last year on a Sunday morning at the Genesis Open where Woods was playing before fans were allowed in. Each instance engenders something close to disbelief from those of us watching. Watching Tiger Woods hit golf balls without fans reminds me of the wildly overplayed but still apt David Foster Wallace “This is Water” speech.

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Mobs of fans have become so synonymous with Tiger that he may at some point in his career have wondered, “What the hell are fans?”

“That’s what the guys are saying now, that it’s a very different world out here not to have the distractions, the noise, the excitement, the energy, the people that the fans bring,” said Woods on Tuesday. “It’s just a silent and different world. … Even in college,” he added with a laugh, “I had a few people following.”

It would be easy to take up both sides of the argument in regards to how the legion of fans at all these events has affected. Has it helped him because they carried the day when he had nothing in the tank? Has it hurt him because there’s always a circus surrounding his every move? Rory McIlroy made the latter argument two years ago, saying that crowds cost Woods two (!) shots an event. Woods wouldn’t commit one way or another, only saying that it’s going to be, well, different.

“It’s so different not having the energy of the crowd,” said Woods. “For me watching at home as a spectator and one that has played this golf course and have heard the energy that the fans bring to these holes and these situations, not to have that is very different, very stark really.”

This is obviously a small piece of this week’s puzzle, but it’s also going to be one of the narratives this event and beyond. Not having fans hasn’t been as noticeable in weeks where Woods hasn’t been present (which is all of them since the restart). This week, though, this week we’ll notice it.

“I’m going to have to just put my head down and play,” said Woods. “It’s going to be different, there’s no doubt about it. For most of my career, pretty much almost every competitive playing round that I’ve been involved in, I’ve had people around me, spectators yelling, a lot of movement inside the gallery with camera crews and media. 

“Watching the players play over the last few weeks, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s very different. And for the players that are a little bit older and that have played out here for a long time and have experienced it, it is very different. For some of the younger guys, it’s probably not particularly different. They’re not too far removed from college or they’ve only been out here for a year or two. But for some of the older guys, it’s very eye-opening really.”

I have to imagine that after 25 straight years of Woods experiencing somebody screaming “mashed potatoes!” or “Baba Booey!” into his ear after every shot he hits, it’s going to be a joy experiencing none of that this week at Muirfield Village. Consider your own occupation. Do you construct spreadsheets? Maybe stock warehouses? What if, after every cell you filled out in Excel or every box of paper you stacked in a warehouse, somebody hollered after you no matter whether your performance was good or bad? You’d probably be excited about a week (or year?) off from that.

Regardless of what Tiger wants, though, what he’s going to get this week and beyond in professional golf is something he’s never experienced in his adult life. Through the 15 majors and 82 PGA Tour wins and all the madness, one constant has been the noise. Both next to and around him.

What the hell are fans? 

What he’ll get this week instead in the biggest event of the year to date is something he’s never had and may never have again in his professional golf career (at least for an extended period of time). What he’ll get this week, even if he wins this event and sets the new PGA Tour record for career wins at 83 in front of Jack Nicklaus (whose wins count he surpassed nearly a decade ago) is complete and utter silence.