HOLLISTER, Mo. – “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”
Children who had never seen Tiger Woods win a golf tournament, much less a major, chanted his name as they waited impatiently for him to arrive for a free kids clinic at Buffalo Ridge Springs Golf Course, part of Big Cedar Lodge.
On a Tuesday morning in April, with temperatures finally pushing into the 70s, an estimated 7,000 people showed up to see Woods. It was part of the festivities taking place in advance of the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf tournament that runs through April 22.
Woods flew into Branson Airport, about three miles from Buffalo Ridge Springs, around 9 a.m. Tuesday. He and Big Cedar owner Johnny Morris toured Payne’s Valley, the course that Woods’ firm designed for the resort. Payne’s Valley, located about two miles from the airport, is tentatively scheduled to open in 2019.
Meanwhile, thousands of people were gathering at Buffalo Ridge Springs more than two hours before Woods was scheduled to arrive. Branson Creek Boulevard, a two-lane road that runs past the course, was lined with hundreds of cars by 10 a.m. CDT.
Let’s put this in perspective. The biggest town in this part of southern Missouri is Branson, located a few miles to the north. Branson is a big Midwest tourist destination, with some 50 theaters and more than 100 live acts. But this was a Tuesday morning, and Branson has fewer than 11,000 full-time residents.
Like Babe Ruth or Jack Dempsey doing a whistle-stop tour through the heartland nearly a century ago, much of the town seemed to shut down for hours to get a glimpse of the man who still dominates the golf landscape.
Woods arrived by golf cart from the far end of the practice range at 12:25 p.m. CDT, along with Morris and Bill Dance, the famous angler who was scheduled to do a fly-fishing clinic after Woods.
Woods donned a microphone and began with a confession: “This is going to be the first golf ball I’ve hit since Augusta.” He also belatedly realized that he hadn’t brought all of his golf clubs, so he had to ad lib his warm-up routine.
None of this seemed to bother his fans.
“I love you, Tiger!” a woman wailed from the gallery.
“I love him even more!” came the response from another woman on the other side of the practice range.
Woods spent most of the time going through his bag, hitting a variety of shots – cutting a pitching wedge, hitting a swooping 50-yard hook with a 7-iron, ripping a stinger down the range.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting tempted here,” Woods said as he took aim at a drone hovering above the practice range. The drone had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a dart from Woods’ pitching wedge.
Twenty-eight minutes after he began, Woods was gone, as were most of his fans.
Here’s what else we learned: Tiger-mania is still as strong as ever. And this:
You don’t want to be the act that follows Tiger Woods. Pity poor Bill Dance. He started to talk fishing right after Woods left, but by that time, thousands of people already were streaming past the clubhouse on the way to their cars.