ST. LOUIS – If Tiger Woods’ Wednesday practice round was any indication, the atmosphere at this week’s PGA Championship is going to be absolutely nuts. And if the course stays like this, they’re gonna have a ton of birdies to cheer about.
Woods went out with Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and J.B. Holmes in the afternoon for a frenzied practice round that already had a big major feel. And if there’s anything physically wrong with Woods after a disappointing week at Firestone, it didn’t show.
Woods favored driver off the tee and will probably hit around 8-10 of them per round this week, a high number relative to the rest of this comeback. He didn’t have much trouble getting it around Bellerive’s wide fairways and added a few birdies in sweltering conditions, and the entire group spent the afternoon firing at flags on soft greens.
“The ball is just plugging out there and if anything, it favors a guy who hits the ball high,” Woods said. “We’re not going to get any run and it’s not going to dry out the rest of the week. It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be wet and fortunately, I’m one of the guys who hit the ball high and gets the ball up in the air.”
Everyone wanted a piece of the action – A large and probably unnecessary number of tournament volunteers grew throughout the afternoon, following every step of the way. Justin Thomas’ parents, Mike and Jani, walked the whole way, with Mike a swing or two, chucking balls into the rough to get a feel for the depth, etc.
Koepka’s girlfriend, Jena Sims, scampered inside the ropes over to Brooks at No. 1 and stayed with the group. That led to a classic moment off the first green when she spotted FOX play-by-play man Joe Buck, who mistakenly called her Koepka’s ex-girlfriend’s name on the air after Koepka won his first U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
They hugged and posed for a picture.
“A cathartic moment for both of us,” Buck said.
“I feel like I finally have closure,” Sims joked back.
Woods was of course the main draw in all this, and his galleries will be jam-packed again when he tees off at 9:23 a.m. CT Thursday with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas.
Holmes was already planning to play with Thomas Wednesday, and the Kentucky duo got linked up with Koepka and Woods ahead of the first tee. Despite Woods’ presence, he got the biggest ovation of the day when he holed out from 85 yards with a 60-degree wedge for an eagle-2 at the par-4 14th.
It was easily the loudest reaction he’s ever received on a Wednesday.
“Not in a practice day, for sure,” Holmes said after the round. “That was kind of cool.”
Holmes played with Woods in the final round of the Memorial Tournament in June, where Woods finished T-23 but hit the ball as well as he has all season. His ballstriking declined significantly at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but it looked like Wednesday was a big step forward in that regard.
“He’s swinging at it good right now,” Holmes said. “We’ll see what happens when the tournament rolls around.”
The atmosphere will be more formal than Wednesday’s all-inclusive go-round and we don’t know if Woods has had enough practice time to get things completely straightened out.
There’s no doubt about one thing though – this will be among the most festive atmospheres of the year.
The Masters is always a bit low-key compared to other tournaments, as far as crowd behavior goes. Sight lines weren’t great for fans at Shinnecock Hills and Woods wasn’t around for the weekend. He rocked Carnoustie, but Scottish fans don’t yell like the Americans and tickets weren’t even sold out for the final round.
This will be something different. This is going to be a wild week in St. Louis with an old-school Woods environment.
It’s about to get loud.