In previous years, Tiger Tuesday became a bit of a tradition at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
Tiger Woods, the world’s most popular golfer, would always make his arrival at The Golf Club at Dove Mountain that day and hold court with reporters from all over the world. He’d then head to the driving range and course with hordes of fans following his every step.
This year, Tuesday on Dove Mountain was noticeably different. No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods wasn’t walking through the door.
Instead, with Woods choosing to skip the event, the search was on for this year’s star attraction.
A couple of natural replacements have emerged.
Fans huddled around the driving range to watch 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson put in some work. And later, they gathered at the putting green to catch two-time major champion Rory McIlroy in action.
No. 11 Watson will tee off this morning at 7:45 against No. 54 Mikko Ilonen of Finland. Despite the early tee time, there should be a crowd hovering and watching Watson’s every move.
It won’t be a Tiger-like crowd, but it should be one of the bigger ones at Dove Mountain.
“The more success you have, the bigger the crowds get,” Watson said. “No matter if they love you or hate you, they’re still bigger crowds.”
He won the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles last weekend and now has five wins on the PGA Tour, including his Masters title. Watson played in his first tour event in 2003 and has more than 1 million followers on Twitter.
But the added attention of being one of the more popular golfers on the circuit is still something he’s adjusting to as he tries not to let it hamper his improvement and development.
“When the camera gets around you, it’s a little nerve-wracking, a little different,” Watson said. “When people want to interview me, a guy from Bagdad, Florida, it’s a weird feeling. I’m not a big fan of big crowds. So when you make it to the PGA Tour, it’s a little different.”
Watson is popular on tour for a number of reasons. He has a big personality, enjoys interacting with his fans through social media, offers thoughtful interviews and stands out on the course with his hot pink driver.
Of course, success also helps.
Watson, who turned 35 in November, hadn’t had a lot of it recently before his win at the Northern Trust Open. He hadn’t won on tour since his Masters victory in 2012, and five career wins is not a lot for a star golfer.
Before he won in Los Angeles, he finished second at the Waste Management Phoenix Open earlier this month, but said his game hasn’t changed much; he’s just gotten a little lucky.
“It’s the same thing — this time, I just made putts,” Watson said Tuesday. “Tomorrow I might not make putts. It’s golf. I double-bogeyed two of my first three holes last week, and somehow I still won the tournament. There’s nothing I’m doing anything different.”
McIlroy, on the other hand, is always tinkering with his swing and putting stroke. The goal for the 24-year-old is to regain the form that helped him win five times in 2012, including the PGA Championship. A couple of years wiser and more experienced, McIlroy believes the best is yet to come.
“I can do better,” the pro from Northern Ireland said. “I went through a period in 2012 where I missed like four cuts in five events. I definitely thought it was a great year. When I played well, I played very well and I won. But if I had any criticism about that year, I lacked a little bit of consistency.”
A month after victory in the PGA, McIlroy won back-to-back tournaments: the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship. He hasn’t won in the United States since, but he’s hoping to change that this week.
No. 4 McIlroy, one of four top seeds, will tee off at 11:25 a.m. today against No. 61 Boo Weekley of the U.S. and is hoping to make it to Sunday, like he did in 2012. Then, McIlroy lost to Hunter Mahan in the championship match.
Last year, McIlroy returned hoping to make another deep run, but was ousted in the first round by Shane Lowry. Now, McIlroy just wants to get by Weekley first.
“I know I have Boo Weekley, and past that I don’t really look at all,” he said. “You just have to take it one match at a time. It’s such a different format to what we’re used to playing week-in and week-out.”