I have never been formally introduced to Tiger Woods but in the course of reporting on his winning ways around the world, I somehow became a friend.
A friend, not in the sense I had his phone number and could ring him up and see if he wanted to go out for a game of golf and/or a beer afterward.
No, nothing like that. More in the sense I would be present among the media where Woods was competing, and that he would see me at tournaments, and then in the course of sticking my hand-up to ask a question of Woods, I would be identified by the moderator with: “Yes, Bernie? You have a question?”.
The 1995 Masters was my first Masters and the first exposure to Tiger, teeing-up, as he did, as the reigning US Amateur champion. In soaking up the awe of my first Masters, it was hard also not to be carried away by this then 19-year-old also making his Augusta National debut.
He missed the cut in 1996 and later that year I was present in Northern Virginia reporting on the second hosting of the Presidents Cup on a course close to the Civil War memorial site at Richmond.
To the north, Woods was contesting his first PGA Tour event as a pro – the Greater Milwaukee Open – and after rounds of 67 and 69, he was already into contention. Half the media attending the Presidents Cup rushed off the Milwaukee to cover the possibility of a maiden Woods win in his first event as a card-carrying member of the Tour.
That maiden victory toast happened in his fifth Tour event at Las Vegas, and a second in his seventh at the Walt Disney, and by the time we got to the ’97 Masters, Woods had won four times.
I will never forget Colin Montgomerie’s remarks after playing alongside Woods in the third round. Woods went into day three at eight-under and leading by three and Monty was his partner at five-under. By day’s end Woods was at 15-under and now leading by nine from Constantino Rocca, with Monty sharing fourth at a very distant three-under.
Monty, when asked of Woods’ chances of winning a first major, said:
“There is no chance humanly possible that Tiger is going to lose this tournament,” Monty told a large gathering of reporters that included me. And when one of my colleagues asked about Greg Norman’s brutal collapse a year earlier when golf’s Great White Shark led by six shots and lost to Nick Faldo by five, Monty responded: “This is different. This is very different. (Nick) Faldo is not lying second for a start, and Greg Norman is not Tiger Woods.”
If Faldo left this Aussie reporter shaking my head in disbelief when Norman had the victory carpet pulled out from under him, then a year later I sat there with my colleagues in the ‘old’ Masters media centre just memorised like everyone else by Woods’ total domination of the 61st Masters.
Woods was soon playing and winning around the globe and this journalist was not about to sit at home.
I was present at Blue Canyon in Thailand when Woods just made the halfway cut, coming from eight shots behind Ernie Els to beat Els in a play-off. Not to forget the sight of two elephants proudly walking up the 18th as part of the prize-giving ceremony.
Two years later, and again in the humidity of Thailand, Woods won a second Johnnie Walker Classic at the strangely-named Alpine Golf & Country Club. Woods hosted a junior clinic ahead of the event and one youngster asked him if he liked McDonald’s.
The picture I am painting is that every time Woods was popping-up outside of the PGA Tour, he’d find me in the press contingent. You could say I was stalking Woods. Maybe I was, but in the pre-internet golf reporting era, Woods was the story, as he still is today.
If there was a tournament where our ‘friendship’ came to the fore it was at the 2012 ‘Duel at Jinsha Lake,’ an 18-hole exhibition match between Woods and then 23-year-old Rory McIlroy, that coincided with the launch of a multi-million-dollar housing project which is being built around the course in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province in China.
They were No. 1 and No. 2 in the world and McIlroy just weeks away from joining Woods as a global Nike ambassador.
Woods was on the practice putting green, ahead of the match, when I casually walked over, and with Woods saying something like: “Hey Bernie? What the hell are you doing here?”
I think I replied along the lines: “Well, I thought I’d come over to again annoy you.” Irish photographer Eoin Clarke, to my continual bliss, snapped a picture of the moment.
A year later, I was back in China again, filing for among others, Associated Press, when Woods and McIlroy were competing in their ‘Match at Mission Hills’. It was Woods’ first foray onto a golf course since Brandel Chamblee’s controversial Sports Illustrated ‘Plus’ where the one-time PGA Tour winner, gave Woods an ‘F’ report card for his 2013 five-event winning season because of a series of rules violations.
Knowing Woods well enough, I asked if I could walk with him from the practice range to the practice putting green ahead of his match with McIlroy. Woods agreed and gave me his first public response to Chamblee’s cheating insinuation story and virtually suggested to The Golf Channel, though the story was in Sports Illustrated, as The Golf Channel employed Chamblee, to act.
Woods’ Manager, Mark Steinberg, then approached me and asked if a couple of Woods’ comments to me could be altered, albeit slightly. I was not going to disagree despite a full-time AP golf writer taking objection but then if you knew the AP golf writer I am suggesting, you’ll know where I am coming from.
The next week Woods headed to the Turkish Airlines Open and was asked in a formal press conference situation ahead of the event what he thought of Chamblee’s story. I was sitting with the assembled media when Woods replied (As per ASAP Sports): “Well, I’ve said everything I’m going to say. I talked to Bernie about it when I was in Hainan Island, and that’s it.”
I was taken by surprise, of course, not by the question but the fact that Woods should mention my first name in such circumstances.
It has happened many times since, and more recently when I was present in the media centre for the 2021 Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. It was Woods’ first public appearance since the near-fatal events on a suburban LA roadway earlier that year. A simple introduction in saying how good it was to see him back at a golf tournament, and Woods’ replying: “Thanks, Bernie”.
I am not one, and never will be, to lap up the limelight, but although you don’t seek that, it is rewarding when it happens.
If there was a special ‘personal’ moment it was at the 2018 Tour Championship where Woods again defied the knockers ending a five-year PGA Tour winless run to capture the season-ending event at East Lake. The scenes that Sunday afternoon of the crowd walking down the final fairway, and all the time giving Woods the distance he needed to enjoy PGA Tour win No. 80, was one of those special ‘You had to be there’ moments.
Then after Woods spoke to the media, it was just extra special to walk up to Woods and shake his hand and congratulate him on what he had just achieved.
There have been just so many other moments like the handful I have selected in the 27-years since I first saw Woods competing at the 1995 Masters.
I guess it comes with the job that often you do get to become friends with those you are reporting on and as Woods now becomes honoured with being inducted into Golf’s Hall of Fame, it’s been a great journey also for this golf writer in getting to be able to still walk-up to Woods and shake a friendly hand.