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Brushes with greatness

A few strokes here and there give fans a picture of Tiger

NORTON -- The best golfer in the world, his toes dug firmly here in a Bay State beach distant miles from the Atlantic, whimsically issued an SOS yesterday morning as he sized up his shot. Even for Tiger Woods, the PGA's manicured fairway bunkers can be the devil.

"Anyone with an idea how to hit this?" said a stymied Woods, his playful plea from the sandy kettle on the seventh fairway yesterday at the bucolic TPC Boston drawing chuckles from the nearby crowd. Galleries around the world are full of opinion, on all subjects, but where better to get guidance than from the Massachusetts golfing vox populi?

"Yeah, sure, lemme help you!" came a cry from a male spectator in the middle of the pack.

"Yeah, I'll show you . . . honey!" came another solicitation, from a middle-aged woman in the crowd, applying a slightly suggestive Boston accent to her "honey."

Club of his own choosing in hand, however, a grinning Woods returned his attention to the ball, fell back into full best-golfer-in-the-world character, and struck his next shot. Not good. The ball popped out, flew barely 30 feet (wounded quail, incoming!), and landed in yet another fairway bunker.

UGH! A true Charlie Brown moment.

To see the incomparable Woods go bunker-to-bunker was only the second-most amazing feat wrapped into the moment. Most amazing was that no one in the swollen pack of Mass. opinion uttered a word. Right there before their eyes, Woods chopped up the course like an 18-handicap holiday hacker, and the good people of the Commonwealth barely raised an eyebrow, for fear, perhaps, that he just might ask for advice on his next shot. But one magical stroke later, Woods was on his way down the fairway, the gallery he left behind bonded by the Everyman experience of Tiger Woods dabbling momentarily in their kind of golf.

"The fans were very supportive," Woods said later, after completing a five-hour loop in a pro-am, the prelude to today's start of the Deutsche Bank Championship. "They love their golf. They came out today."

Over the course of the 18 holes, his first time around the PGA's new track, the legendary Woods remained mostly stoic and focused. At times, especially when working his way through tight, packed quarters to the next tee box, he maintained that transfixed look of a superstar who knows that to engage anyone will mean having to engage everyone. To sign an autograph for one, or pose for a picture, can bring an avalanche impossible to escape.

Nonetheless, there were moments yesterday, amid the good will that is a pro-am, when Woods loosened up and personally engaged a few of the thousands who streamed here some 30 miles southwest of Boston. Now perhaps the world's best-known and richest athlete -- his current Nike deal reported to be worth $100 million -- Woods often flashed his trademark grin and especially lit up the times he caught the eye of a child.

"Hi, Tiger," shouted Aaron Titcomb, a young Charlestown boy, as Woods passed him along the fifth fairway. Woods turned ever so slightly, caught the boy's gaze, and waved his way.

"There you go!" said Jim Gillen, the boy's stepfather, giving Aaron a congratulatory hug. "He's only human." Moments later, to a passerby, Gillen added, "That was absolutely great . . . just for him to acknowledge the kid like that -- just great."

Pals Scott O'Brien, a 37-year-old from Hanover, and Bill McCarthy, a 39-year-old from South Weymouth, were perhaps the day's biggest winners. After hitting his tee shot on No. 13, Woods opted to swing wide of his playing partners, who were advancing ahead to take their tee shots on a fore tee. The uncharted journey essentially led Woods into the gallery, and amidst the detour he soon had O'Brien and McCarthy, two lugs from the Boston 'burbs, chatting him up like a long-lost pal.

They walked. They bantered. A gracious Woods accommodated them by stopping and posing for pictures, one with O'Brien, another with McCarthy. A blue sky. A warm New England late-summer breeze. Their pal Tiger captured in a Kodak moment. Could it get any better?

"How great was that?" said O'Brien. "We were going to be happy just to get a distant picture of him. That was unbelievable. And he was just like a regular guy."

Farther along the same fairway, yet to return inside the gallery ropes, Woods stopped again when 5-year-old Wil Rogers waved him down for a picture. No one could resist a kid with a bridge of freckles smattered across his nose and a smile a mile wide.

"How ya doin', bud?" said Woods. Wil's 3-year-old brother, James, stood nearby, equally speechless. Mom and dad, Wil and Elise, posed the shot. They would be talking about it all night back home in Weymouth.

"Gee," said the elder Wil, seeming somewhat stunned, "that was great."

The last time the great Woods played Boston, the crowd wasn't nearly as embraceable. He was here in '99 for the Ryder Cup, at The Country Club in Brookline, when a small but vocal percentage of the locals went out of their way to lambaste the Europeans. Scotland's Colin Montgomerie became the main object of their disaffection.

"Well, the crowds at Boston during that particular Ryder Cup, were they supportive? Yes," he recalled. "Did they cross the line? Yes. I played with Monty in one of those matches. It was brutal to see the things that people were saying about him, personally. You know, golf is not like that."

Further bolstering what was a widely held opinion, Woods maintained that much of the misbehavior could be attributed to too much alcohol.

"It's amazing when you get under the influence of a couple of beverages of your choice, what happens," Woods mused. "People get slightly more opinionated."

Across the much wider, and more sober plains of TPC Boston, no one was misbehavin'. Good-naturedness was the order of the day, Woods surrounded by civility and politeness, well-wishers and autograph-seekers. Several members of the Norton Police Department were on hand, on foot and bike, but a Cub Scout pack could have kept order for Tiger's TPC tipoff.

Strolling along a scenic path through the woods on his way to the 13th tee box, Woods was joined by Norton patrolman Tim Gariepy, who kept pace alongside on his trailbike. Woods looked at ease, the two men talking during the two-minute trek through the hardwoods and pines.

"He was very personable," said Gariepy. "I asked him what he thought about the course, that's all -- and he said he liked it. But I didn't say much, to be honest, being the first time I ever met him and everything."

The day was a treat for three caddies, Mike Sheehy, Rob Goodrich, and John Donovan, all from the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Foundation. Seasoned bag-carriers all, the walk with Woods, they all agreed, will rank as the most exciting and memorable loop of their lives.

Approaching the 11th tee box, Donovan was shoulder-to-shoulder with Woods, the two exchanging words on a local public course. Goodrich and Sheehy recalled a subtle moment when one of the amateurs -- among a gaggle of corporate bigwigs -- hit one of the worst shots of the day. Wincing slightly, Woods watched the shot sail into oblivion and groaned a soft and sympathetic, "Touch 'em all."

"I liked that a lot -- `Touch 'em all,' " said Sheehy. "I mean, that's something you'd say if you were out playing at Ponkapoag with just a bunch of guys, you know? Touch 'em all! Yeah, just like an afternoon at Ponky. He was great like that -- you could just shoot the breeze with him. But at the same time, you got the sense that he knew it was a big deal for us, but he kind of took it in stride, too."

"He definitely loosened up on the back nine," added Donovan.

Case in point: a comical moment at the 15th tee box, when an energetic still photographer implored Woods to wait before hitting his first shot, in order to accommodate a better picture. Unflappable, Woods waited for the camera guy to hunker down, then cracked up everyone by asking, "Is my fly OK?"

Earlier in the morning, the shadows of a 7 a.m. tee time giving way to brighter light, Woods stopped along a fairway and pulled a nutrition bar from his bag. The green at least 250 yards away, perhaps reachable only by SUV, Woods himself laughed a little when 48-year-old Kevin Dolan, from Lakeville, shouted over, "Think you can hit it from here, Tiger, and then one putt?"

Seth Waugh, CEO-Americas for Deutsche Bank, was part of the four-man amateur group that finished up the round with Woods just a couple of minutes before noon. Along the way, Waugh's 8-year-old son, Clancy, temporarily joined the the group for the walk along the fairways.

"How are ya, bud?" said Woods, shaking hands with Clancy, whose sandals and bright, summery attire seemed better suited for the beach -- the real beach. "I like your belt, bud." The jab seemed to get more of a laugh out of Dad.

"First time I've ever played with Tiger, and what a treat," said a beaming Waugh. "It's the only sport in the world where guys like us can get right in the arena with these guys and play along with them -- and then you truly realize how good they are. Tiger made it a wonderful day, for everyone. He's truly a good guy, and you could tell he realized it was all for us."

The real tournament begins today, Woods teeing off at 7:40 a.m. If he keeps to routine, he'll likely be at the driving range much earlier, sharpening his swing and, who knows, perhaps asking for more tips on those bunker shots.

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