Buick Open
Buick Open
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Tiger the main attraction at Buick

They crammed into the bleachers and pressed against the ropes along the first 100 yards of the fairway. Toddlers sat on their fathers' shoulders as if waiting for the parade to go by.

The final round of a major championship? History in the making?

No, it was 7 a.m. Wednesday at Warwick Hills Country Club, the start of a pro-am on the day before the Buick Open. Tiger Woods was in the house.

"Turn around, Tiger,'' a woman yelled out behind him when he arrived on the first tee.

He obliged with a pirouette and a smile.

It was the first chance to see Woods since he won the Open at St. Andrews, where he set yet another record in a major championship and became the youngest player, at 24, to complete the career Grand Slam.

His popularity never has been greater.

For someone who turned professional only four years ago, Woods already is linked with the greatest who ever played the royal and ancient game. He is on the cover of Time magazine this week. His face is plastered on billboards along Interstate 75, looking down upon rush-hour traffic with that megawatt smile.

"Guess who's coming to the Buick Open," the caption says.

They weren't advertising Tom Pernice Jr., the defending champion. And Pernice didn't feel the least bit slighted.

"You should be excited to have Tiger coming here,'' he said. "It's a major, major thing. He can bump ticket sales right away by 20 percent.''

Or more. Ticket sales were 88,000 and counting today, up from 54,000 a year ago when Woods took the week off.

Tiger Woods, at his last outing at the Open, where he won by 8 shots. Allsport.

Tigermania is back.

It first surfaced when Woods became the youngest Masters champion in 1997 with a 12-stroke victory. After only one PGA Tour victory in 1998, while Woods was rebuilding his swing, it picked up momentum when he won the PGA Championship last year and put together the longest tour winning streak (6) since 1945.

For an encore -- or maybe it's still the opening act -- Woods won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the Open by eight. He has won six of 13 PGA Tour events this year, and 13 of his last 23 dating to May of last year.

"It's going to go up and down, ebb and flow,'' Woods said of the hype surrounding his every move. "That's just the way success is.''

Still, even Woods was bewildered at the scene around the first tee. Against a backdrop of dark, gray clouds, the flash from so many cameras resembled strobe lights.

"It's like playing in lightning,'' he said under his breath.

He took one last look at his target on the 567-yard hole, caught another wave of dancing lights and decided it wasn't going to stop.

"Geez,'' Woods said as he pulled back his driver and unleashed a 300-yard drive.

The rest of his morning followed a familiar pattern. See the flash, hit the ball, walk through a gauntlet of autograph-seekers young and old.

Among his four amateur partners was Tony Derhake, the brand manager of golf for Buick. It was the second time this year he had played a pro-am with Woods.

"He basically can go nowhere,'' Derhake said. "Everywhere he goes, people are trying to get his autograph. If someone were to holler, 'Tony D! Tony D!' thousands of times around the golf course ... I can't even fathom what it would be like.''

The PGA Championship is next week in Kentucky. Woods rarely plays the week before a major, and there are whispers that the five-year, $30 million endorsement contract he signed with Buick last year requires him to play in a certain number of its tournaments.

Woods also played the Buick Open the week before the PGA in 1997 and 1998, before he had a deal with Buick.

"I don't have to play any of them,'' he said.

Such rumors are the least of his worries. A British tabloid reported in February that he got engaged to his girlfriend, Joanna Jagoda. Not true, Woods said.

A similar report -- again denied -- surfaced this week.

As often as Woods is in the spotlight, he strives to keep his personal life to himself.

"It's none of their business,'' he said. "And the fact it's not true makes it more annoying. A lot of things in my life I like to keep private. Unfortunately, people can't accept that.''

Everything else is on display for all to see. It's usually quite a show.


A look at the impact on attendence of Tiger Woods at each tournament he played following his victory in a major championship:

• 1997 GTE Byron Nelson Classic, Irving, Texas (following Masters victory) -- 260,000 attended, an increase of 110,000 from the 1996 event that Woods did not play.

• 1999 The International, Castle Rock, Colo. (PGA Championship) -- Sales are limited to only 25,000 badges each year for the event.

• 2000 Advil Western Open, Lemont, Ill. (U.S. Open) -- 190,000 attended for an increase of 5,000 from the previous year. Note: Woods was the defending champion and a two-time winner of this event.

• 2000 Buick Open, Grand Blanc, Mich. (British Open) -- An estimated 150,000 fans are expected for an increase of 45,000 from last year, when Woods did not play.

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