At the Memorial, Tiger and Jack but still no fans

© Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

Jack Nicklaus was on the air. Tiger Woods was just off the green. Just like forever.

Except that golf had seemed less important than what it, and virtually every sport, lacked: fans.

Everything is haphazard. Our games, like the rest of our lives, must pay obeisance to that virus. The sports calendar has been realigned. The Kentucky Derby is in late summer, the Masters in late fall.

Thursday should have been the first round of the British Open, which of course has been cancelled this year. Instead it was the first round of the Memorial, which normally is held at the end of May.

But as we are well aware in this time of COVID-19, almost nothing is normal, although finally in Dublin, Ohio, it almost was — Tiger back in a PGA Tour tournament, and Jack, as is tradition for the event he helped start 45 years ago, commentating for television.

A couple of weeks ago, the plan was for the Memorial to be the first event with people in the stands or outside the ropes since early March.

For us to hear the cheers and groans and nonsensical shouts of “in the hole,” after tee shots on a 450-yard par-4.

Then came the virus surge in Ohio, just as it has in too many other locations, and officials were required to close the gates. No crowds, which admittedly made the hike across the course easier for Woods and the other pros but also made it less entertaining for everyone else.

“You usually have marshals helping get you around,” Tiger said on The Golf Channel, a statement that could apply for any event he entered. “It was nice walking directly from point A to point B.”

Nice, and relatively silent, the only sounds from voices of a few workers, TV cameramen, scorekeepers, or the rumble of their equipment, a truck, a tractor.

So unreal, Tiger Woods without a gallery, without signs requesting the quiet rarely attainable when he is in the field. Maybe a few times when he played college golf at Stanford in the mid-1990s did Woods compete in a tournament without spectators. But he can’t remember those times.

What we remember is the way he won that ’97 Masters and changed the sport. Golf has always belonged to a precious few; way back it was Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen; then Sam Snead and Ben Hogan; then Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus; then Tom Watson and Greg Norman; then, after the momentous Masters, Tiger.

So the golfing world wondered what it would get Thursday when, after a gap of 20 weeks, Tiger Woods, age 44, would return to tournament golf. It got a relatively impressive performance, a 1-under 71 that started with a birdie and closed with a birdie.

True, Woods is five behind leader Tony Finau and tied for 18th, but with everything, he was pleased — and he should have been. The only real golf Woods had played since he walked off Riviera Country Club on Feb. 16 after a 77 was in that charity event with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

For one reason or another, he skipped all of the previous five events held since the Tour returned after the COVID-19 break. Was he healthy? Was he worried? The PGA Tour, for which the TV ratings rise and fall on Woods’ presence or absence, was worried.

“I just felt it was better to stay home and be safe,” said Woods, who resides in Florida, one of the hot spots.

When he showed up Monday to check in, Woods was wearing a mask. Medical authorities from Dr. Fauci on down must have smiled behind their masks.

Analyzing his day at a course where he had won five times, Woods, mask off, nearly smiled.

“Got off to an almost idea start and got a feel for the round early,” said Woods. “I just didn’t make anything today.”

He did make it to a tournament. Now we just have to hope fans will be allowed to do the same.