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Curiosity, hope and big crowds follow Tiger

By Doug Ferguson

AP Golf Writer

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — He is the only two-time winner on the PGA Tour this season. He has been No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings the past six weeks.

And when he sees the No. 544 player in the world Thursday morning on the first tee of the Honda Classic, these could be his first words.

“Hi, I’m Patton Kizzire.”

Kizzire can’t recall meeting Tiger Woods except in passing. That would have been last year at Torrey Pines, the only time they were in the field.

The 31-year-old from Alabama, who is the image of southern comfort with his polite demeanor, is the latest to experience the hype surrounding Woods in his return from a fourth back surgery.

“First time,” he said Wednesday. “It’s something I’ve looked forward to as a kid. I always looked up to him.”

It’s not easy being Woods, who has been golf’s biggest star since his 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters. He copes with the largest galleries, the incessant movement, the endless distraction.

Rory McIlroy played with him last week at Riviera and suggested the gallery costs Woods a half-shot a round.

But at least he’s used to it.

Justin Thomas played with Woods in the Bahamas before only a few hundred people. He experienced the full Tiger show during the opening two rounds at Riviera and described it as “pretty wild.” The next day is when he appreciated the amount of attention Woods gets.

“It was just bizarre because those first two days, there’s so many people,” he said. “And then Saturday morning, there was nobody. Rory and I were walking up to the tee and we’re like, ‘Where is everybody? Does he really bring that many people?’”

Yes. And odds are, they will be seeing Kizzire for the first time.

Also in the group is Brandt Snedeker, who has been through the drill. Snedeker played with Woods in the final round of the BMW Championship that Woods won in 2009 by eight shots. He played with him in the penultimate group of the final round at the 2012 British Open, and the opening two rounds of The Players Championship when Woods won in 2013. More recently, he played with Woods on Saturday at Torrey Pines.

No one has dealt with big crowds like Woods.

Nick Faldo once said that when he helped Woods into the green jacket at the 1997 Masters, he thought at the time it might be the only major Woods could win because Augusta National creates a buffer zone — no press, no photographer, practically nobody inside the ropes except players and caddies.

“Now it’s his greatest asset,” Faldo said in a 2007 interview. “Everyone joining him on the weekend at a major goes into his world. That’s Tiger’s arena. Other guys will step into that arena one week and go back out. He’s there all the time. And good luck coming into his world.”

The crowd, the buzz, the energy is still great, mainly out of curiosity and hope that Woods can win again after being out for so long with so many injuries.

What’s different is the mystique, which starts with the scores.

Woods has gone 10 straight rounds on the PGA Tour and European Tour without breaking par dating to August 2015. Woods tied for 23rd on a tough track at Torrey Pines last month, and then he missed the cut at Riviera with poor putting in the second round. Everything is geared toward the Masters.

“I’m just learning how to play tournament golf again, and unfortunately I’ve made some mistakes, and that’s just part of it,” he said. “As far as catch-up mode, no, I don’t feel like I am. I know most of the guys have been playing tournament golf a lot more than I have. As I said, I’m looking forward to April, trying to get my game solid for April. And I’ve got some work to do.”

Woods is playing PGA National for the first time since 2014, when he withdrew during the final round with back spasms. He tried to play the following week at Doral, fell out of contention in the final round with a 78 and then had the first of four back surgeries a few weeks later.

He was runner-up in 2012 when he closed with a 62.

There’s no telling what this week will bring. The wind is supposed to blow hard, as it does in South Florida this time of the year. It’s rare to find a hole that doesn’t have water. Little mistakes can turn into big numbers.

It will be another step for Woods.

It will be a new experience for Kizzire, though he feels he is not entirely unprepared. Kizzire played with Thomas and Jordan Spieth the weekday rounds at the rowdy Phoenix Open, and he survived the 16th hole arena on Saturday.

“Phoenix was a good prep for me,” Kizzire said. “I had Jordan and Justin the first two days, and then Saturday was really crazy. I expect something like that.”

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