Editor’s note: This column originally published in The Charlotte Observer on May 3, 2007.
The respect Michael Jordan has for Tiger Woods, who has won 12 major golf tournaments, is evident.
As Woods is about to tee off, Jordan offers a cough that is emphysema loud, and Woods has to pull up. Woods steps away, returns and quickly addresses the ball. Address is the right term; he postmarks the sucker. The ball makes a different sound when Woods hits it.
The respect Woods has for Jordan, who has won six NBA championships, is apparent.
Jordan’s ball lands on the fairway, rare for him during most of Wednesday’s Wachovia Championship pro-am at Quail Hollow Club. The ball rests atop the rich, green grass, the lie perfect. As Woods walks past the ball, he steps on it.
The 7:30 a.m. pairing of Jordan and Woods, two of the best-known athletes in the world, attracts as many fans as the leaders will Sunday (unless Woods, Phil Mickelson or John Daly are involved).
A 4:30 a.m. shuttle bus transports workers from the remote parking lots to Quail Hollow. On Wednesday, it includes fans. They want to be on the front row when Jordan and Woods tee off. By mid-morning, fans at some holes stand six-deep.
Joining Woods and Jordan on the tee box is Skipper Beck, the longtime Charlotte Mercedes dealer. The hospitality package Beck purchased entitles him to play in the pro-am. Since Tiger and Michael are known by one name, Beck will be, too. From now on, he is Skipper.
On the first hole, Tiger gets warm applause, Michael gets warmer applause and Skipper gets oxygen. After Skipper pops a beautiful shot off the tee, he puts his hand over his heart and drops to one knee.
Then comes the oxygen, for which the tournament’s general chairman, Mac Everett, arranged. Skipper doesn’t need oxygen. One-name guys don’t need oxygen.
But Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods might. When handicaps are included, Skipper is whipping them.
Tiger denies they have money on the round.
“We’re not allowed to bet on the tour,” he says earnestly.
But Michael, a 6-handicap, gives Skipper, a 12-handicap, five strokes a side. Skipper doesn’t need any of them.
How much you win?
“I haven’t finished counting yet,” says Skipper.
Longtime friends, Michael and Tiger often play 36 and 54 holes together. But those are private games. Tiger says he has never experienced anything like Wednesday. It’s a game between two buddies and 20,000 of their closest friends.
The sign that precedes the group says, TEAM WOODS, but on Wednesday, Charlotte is TOWN MICHAEL. Tiger is working. Michael is playing. A recluse since he was hired to run the Charlotte Bobcats, he talks to the galleries about Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and the NBA draft.
When a fan asks about the estimated $150 million divorce settlement Michael paid, he simply smiles.
When a fan rips him for landing his drives farther than Tiger – amateurs Michael and Skipper tee off about 30 yards in front – Michael says, “You must be a (N.C.) State fan.”
Michael, who played basketball at rival North Carolina, says this with a cigar in his mouth. He goes through three Wednesday. When he tees off, he lovingly sets the cigar on the ground next to him. The stogie is as distinctive as his golf bag, which features the Nike Jumpman symbol and the likeness of every Air Jordan shoe ever made.
Michael grimaces, talks to the ball, uses his body to influence it. When he hits a good shot, he looks at Tiger, Skipper, the galleries, the world.
Michael doesn’t sign autographs, but he pulls from a box in his golf bag – the thing looks like sterling silver, so don’t call it tin – a stogie and hands it to an older woman who asks for one. A young boy looks at the ball Tiger is about to hit and Michael kicks it toward him, inviting him onto the tee box to pick it up.
For guys who don’t have money on every hole, Michael and Tiger are stingy with their gimmes. “Good, good?” one asks. “No, no,” the other responds.
Maybe the bets don’t involve money. Maybe if Tiger loses, he has to attend a Bobcats game. Maybe if Michael loses, he has to attend a Bobcats game.
Even if you don’t play golf, watching the threesome makes you wish you did. They talk trash, laugh and look for an edge.
Tiger kicks Michael’s ball into the water. Michael blocks Tiger’s putt with his putter. As Michael takes a practice swing, Tiger, who is on the other side of the green, yells, “I got it!”
After another faux coughing gag, Michael tells Tiger, “I’m used to noise, so it doesn’t bother me.”
On No. 17, a fan screams at Michael, “Ten to one it goes in the water.”
Michael searches the gallery until he finds the speaker.
“How much?” he asks.
Laughing, Tiger drops to his knees. When Michael clears the water, he locks eyes with the fan.
Tiger and Michael will get by on one name today. Skipper? As photographers click, click, click at Michael Wednesday, Skipper Beck jumps in front of him.
“This is your 15 seconds right here,” Michael says.