Valspar: Tiger Mania Grips Tampa Bay

All the talk so far at Innisbrook is centered on one man

Innisbrook is very fan-friendly in its intimacy. The practice area is between the first and tenth tees, leading to a crowded-but-busy scene with pros everywhere. This is a good place to hang around when you’re still waiting on somebody you would like to follow around, or if you just want to give your legs a bit of a break.

On Tuesday, it seemed like everybody who had come to the Valspar Championship was waiting around this area, watching the clubhouse, and waiting for Tiger Woods.

The most frequent question of the day was “do you know anything about Tiger?” Some had come to see other people, or the course itself, such as a family of people with brouges who came to see Rory McIlroy. Most, however, were there for the legend.

When a caddie walked out of the clubhouse carrying a bag with that signature driver cover, it was like a movie. Everything seemed to stop. Drop everything. Tiger’s here.

Tiger’s practice was short and sweet. He took out his driver earlier than most of the pros around him, swinging hard as if to test his body. This and the near-perfect weather helped warm Woods up in a hurry. On the putting green, Tiger seemed to meander from target to target, quickly going through some exercises and getting to the first tee before Jordan Spieth had even reached for his driver.

Woods seemed confident in his game, and he seemed to have a plan. A practice round is, of course, different from just playing a round of golf. With some planning, a practice round can focus on bringing out specific aspects of one’s golf game, and it’s another reason the pros play a different sport than the rest of us. Practice rounds are also our rare chance to see a golfer play against themselves and the course, with no scoreboards to watch or pretend you aren’t watching.

Woods looked like he was having fun. He went to the practice area, saying hi to various pros along the way. His warmest hello, it seemed, was for Jim Furyk and his caddie Fluff Cowan. When it was time to actually get on the course, Furyk played with Woods.

Jordan Spieth came to the practice tee alongside Woods, the reigning Champion Golfer of the World and the brightest light in a luminous young Tour field. Spieth is a hard-worker in his early twenties that gives his caddie as much credit as any golfer I’ve ever seen and who takes golf vacations with his friends on the Tour. Spieth is the face of UnderArmor’s golf line, and he’s currently fourth in the World Golf Ranking.

He practiced with a scattered crowd of people behind him. It wasn’t that nobody was paying attention to Spieth, but he and Tiger were at opposite ends of the driving range, and Tiger’s crowd was almost overflowing.

The gallery for Tiger Woods grew while he was on the practice range Tuesday afternoon. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

Keep in mind this was a Tuesday afternoon. Even on the Suncoast, with scattered clouds that only seemed to be there for decoration, it was a weekday during typical business hours. It was a practice round, not the Pro-Am, and certainly not the tournament.

It’s no wonder, then, that there have been reports about the Valspar potentially being stretched to its limits this week. Innisbrook has been a reliable PGA TOUR stop for decades now, of course, but a force like Tiger Woods will put it to the test this week. The resort is embracing the challenge, appropriate for one of the toughest regular season stops on tour.

Fans are also bracing for everything Tiger brings. While Woods was going through his practice round, fans were figuring out good places to go around each of the holes in order to get a good view, knowing that when the tournament begins the gallery will grow exponentially.

For Innisbrook, it is really the first chance to witness the Tiger phenomenon. He played here in 1996, but that was before he was a major champion, back when the event was sponsored by JC Penney and had a team format. That was before Tiger was recognizable all over the world, and before he was one of the greatest to ever play the game.

When Tiger got big, golf got big. It’s often called the “Tiger Boom,” a rush of golfers that picked up the game because Woods brought it back to the mainstream. Many of them have put golf right back down again, and of course attention given to the pro game is not near where it was when Woods was on top of the world, but it only takes a mere mention of Tiger Woods to rekindle their interest.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.