FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Tiger Woods stood in the 15th fairway of Bethpage Black on Thursday waiting to hit as the retired Mets third baseman David Wright squatted in a catcher’s crouch a few yards away.
A fan on the other side of the ropes asked Wright if he could take a photograph with him. As Wright approached, he found himself standing awkwardly next to another spectator, a grown man dressed in a jumpsuit designed as a tiger costume.
Was Wright going to pose with the faux tiger, too? No, that man didn’t lean in at all. His eyes never left Woods, who was making his first competitive appearance since winning the Masters last month.
“I left my onesie at home,” Wright said after posing and returning to his crouch.
Wright is one of the most admired and beloved sports figures in New York, but during Woods’s uneven opening round of two-over-par 72 at the P.G.A. Championship, he was mostly just another golf fan circling the Tiger sun.
Woods teed off at 8:24 in the morning from the 489-yard 10th hole, one of the farthest spots from the clubhouse, but still his flock found him.
“I got nervous just being on the driving range, the crowd was so big,” Wright said.
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 United States Open champion, described the scene this way: “I think there were about 40,000 out there, 35,000 following Tiger, 4,000 in the merchandise tent, and we maybe had a thousand at a stretch, walking between holes trying to find Tiger.”
McDowell, of Northern Ireland, teed off roughly 30 minutes before Woods, in peace and quiet on the opposite side of the course, carding a 70 that left him seven strokes behind the leader, Brooks Koepka, who is trying to defend his 2018 P.G.A. title. As much as McDowell relishes playing to crowd, he found an upside to playing in front of relatively few people.
“It gives you a chance to stay under the radar and get your job done,” McDowell said.
Woods, 43, has never played under the radar, at any event, much less a P.G.A. Championship, which he has won four times, most recently in 2007.
His debut at the tournament came in 1997, four months after a 12-stroke triumph at the Masters for the first of his 15 major titles. One of those championships came in the 2002 United States Open at Bethpage Black, where Woods finished 15 strokes ahead of a journeyman pro named Jason Caron, who tied for 30th.
Caron, 46, has not played a full season on the PGA Tour since 2003, but he was back at Bethpage Black on Thursday, in the field rather than in the cramped galleries around Woods after qualifying with a sixth-place finish at the P.G.A. Professional Championship.
Now the head professional at Mill River Club in Oyster Bay, about 10 miles from Bethpage, Caron finished with an even-par 70 on Thursday. Like Woods, he has undergone a lot of changes since 2002.
“When I’d see Greg Norman or Tiger on the range, I’d get a little nervous,” Caron said of PGA Tour days. “That was part of my problem back in the day.”
On Thursday, he was tied for 17th, 34 places ahead of Woods. “Can I get a picture of that?” Caron said after his round. “It’s great.”
Caron didn’t get the picture, but his 6-year-old daughter, Caroline, left with a keepsake. Woods’s caddie, Joe LaCava, gave her the glove that Woods had used in the round.
On the eve of the first round, Caron spoke to a friend, Brett Quigley, another former member of the PGA Tour, who said that Caron should consider himself lucky to be starting on the first hole and not the 10th, a 500-yard par-4 with a fairway pinched tight by fingers of sand.
“That could be tough,” Caron recalled Quigley saying.
Tell Woods about it. He was grouped with Koepka and the reigning British Open champion, Francesco Molinari. Hitting last, Woods hung his head after his drive at 10 missed the fairway by less than a foot. From the right rough, Woods pitched to the fairway. His third shot, 83 yards from the hole, flew the green. After chipping to six feet, he two-putted for a double-bogey six.
Woods got one of the strokes back at the 15th, a par-4 that measured 486 yards, when he found the fairway with his drive, and hit a stinger to 16 feet and made the putt.
“That’s sick,” Wright said admiringly as he watched Woods’s approach.
Another double bogey at No. 17 pushed him to three over, but birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 plus an eagle at No. 4 — which required a 31-foot putt — moved Woods to one under and sent his gallery into a frenzy. But then his wave of momentum crashed. He bogeyed three of his last five holes.
“It wasn’t as clean as I’d like to have it, for sure,” said Woods, who passed up a scheduled nine-hole practice round Wednesday because he was feeling ill, though he refused to blame any physical ailments for his problems on the course.
“I feel good,” Woods said.
Wright’s retirement from baseball was hastened by chronic neck, shoulder and back injuries, so he can appreciate better than most what Woods has endured on a journey back to the winner’s circle after four back operations.
“I certainly have a great deal of respect for what he does to prepare and get through those back issues,” Wright said.
But he also felt an instant connection with Koepka, whose great-uncle, Dick Groat, won the 1960 National League Most Valuable Player Award as the star shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Koepka fantasized about playing professional baseball as a child, but settled on golf because he didn’t have enough power at the plate. He spent some time Wednesday with Wright, who said, “I wanted to talk golf with him, and he wanted to talk baseball with me.”
If Woods and his obsessive workouts ushered in the era of golfers as undisputed athletes, Koepka, 29, took the mold and supersized it. He has won three of the last eight majors.
Koepka held the lead most of Thursday’s round, but as Woods made his way around the course, the spectators unabashedly let him know who they thought was No. 1.
The shouts directed at Woods included, “I play golf because of you, boss!”
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