Tiger, Rory, Justin — and nothing but silence

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — As the late great Herb Caen, Mr. San Francisco, used to write, “You had to be there.” Except because of restrictions imposed for the COVID-19 epidemic, you couldn’t be there.

Neither could most anyone else — other than the golfers competing.

Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas were on the 10th tee at Harding Park on Thursday morning, ready to begin the PGA Championship, the return of the majors after months of delays or postponements.

The public address announcer grabbed the microphone, then — well, let Rory speak.

“It’s still funny,” said McIlroy, who then virtually scrolled down the years of PGA titles for these three. “You know. ’99, 2000, 2006, 2007, PGA Champion, Tiger Woods. And then there’s nothing ... That’s definitely different.”

“We've got used to it,” said McIlroy. “That's the way it's going to be for the foreseeable future, unfortunately, and yeah, at this point I think everyone has gotten used to the environment that we are playing in.”

As if there’s an option. At baseball, soccer and NBA games, there is pre-recorded cheering. Not for golf.

This was the prime group, the one ESPN had on its pay-per-view app, and for good reason. Tiger is a ratings machine. McIlroy is outspoken. Thomas is the No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings.

This wasn’t golf as much as it was a celebrity game show: Breakfast with Birdies (and Bogeys).

Woods kept his end of the bargain, shooting a 2-under 68 and making all his believers think that, at age 44 and facing people such as Brooks Koepka (who shot 66, one back of leaders Jason Day and Brendon Todd), he has a chance.

On a day when the infamous marine layer burned off early (there even was sunshine, and of course afternoon wind), McIlroy shot an even par 70. Thomas was at 1-over 71, not bad.

No water hazards at Harding, a muni, but plenty of trees, as Tiger warned two days earlier.

“With the overhang of these cypress trees and the ball – there may be a couple lost balls here,” Woods said before the tournament. “Cut a corner and the ball hangs up there; that could happen very easily here and has happened, and I'm sure will this week as well.”

He knows golf. He also knows Harding, having beaten John Daly there in a playoff for the 2005 American Express Championship.

What nobody knows is whether Woods, years older than most of his competitors, has the staying power for a win.

He does have a new Scotty Cameron putter, used Thursday in a tournament for the time, rather successfully, since he had five birdies, including one on that 10th hole, the silent starter, as opposed to three bogies.

“I felt the practice sessions have been very good,” said Woods.

Working on his game with no distractions of background noise — nobody to scream “You da man!” as he swings — possibly prepared him for this noise-free round.

As McIlroy pointed out, it’s the new norm, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable. At the last major, the 2019 British Open at Royal Portrush — an Irishman, Shane Lowry, winning in Ireland, along with the chants of “Ole, ole, ole” — the cheers shook the very fairways. The people were taking part in history.

Woods understands. When he won the 2000 British at St. Andrews, the boisterous crowd surged about him in a victory celebration. It seems like millions of years and a thousand cheers ago.

There are no spectators here. Nor will there be any at the next scheduled major, the U.S. Open, at Winged Foot outside New York City in September.

There are just golfers and caddies and the question of when it will end, if ever.