Stars In The Pro-Am, Stars In The Wachovia Field

Thursday, May 3rd 2007, 7:54 am
By: News On 6

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ There was no shortage of stars at the Wachovia Championship.

And that was for the pro-am round.

Thousands of fans lined the first fairway Wednesday morning to watch two of the world's most celebrated sports icons _ Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan _ play together in a public event for the first time. Two groups behind with Sergio Garcia, and virtually unnoticed on this day, was Peyton Manning, the guy selected as the Super Bowl MVP.

Also playing was Carolina Panthers coach John Fox. NASCAR drivers Casey Mears and Jimmie Johnson also teed it up.

The real tournament starts Thursday at Quail Hollow, and attention will shift to another cast of stars _ one of the strongest fields of the year at a PGA Tour event that already has become one of the best.

Woods, defending champion Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson are among 27 of the top 30 players in the world ranking. Not bad for a tournament that is only 4 years old.

``When you have a great golf course, the guys will come,'' Woods said. ``This is one of the neat golf courses we get to play all year. It's straightforward, right in front of you. You have to shape the ball both ways, and on top of that, you've really got to putt here.''

The rest of the amenities aren't bad.

The purse is $6.3 million, among the richest for regular PGA Tour events. Players are given a Mercedes-Benz for a courtesy car, and even their caddies get valet parking. Wives are offered a short flight to Asheville to see the Biltmore Estate. Mickelson even found another perk that not many others have talked about _ personalized pillow cases and towels.

``When we show up at the hotel, our kids have their names embroidered on the hotel pillows and towels, and they call our assistants and get all kinds of toys that they like waiting for them in the hotel room,'' Mickelson said.

But it all starts with Quail Hollow, a tree-lined course that features one of the toughest finishing stretch on tour. The par-3 17th is 217 yards to a peninsula green that breaks sharply toward the lake. The 18th is 478 yards with a bunker and trees to the right, and a small stream that winds down the left side all the way to the green.

``It's really kind of a par-3 1/2 hole,'' Mickelson said of the 17th. ``If you make par, it's close to a birdie.''

Furyk won last year with an 8-foot par putt on the 18th to get into a playoff, and a 6-foot par on the first extra hole to beat Trevor Immelman. He was in a four-hole playoff the year before, won by Vijay Singh. Joey Sindelar won in 2004 after a clutch birdie on the 17th and winning in _ you guessed it _ a playoff.

The only time the Wachovia didn't require overtime was the first year, when David Toms took a six-shot lead to the final hole and made a quadruple-bogey 8 to win by two.

Clearly, this tournament doesn't lack excitement.

There was plenty of that Wednesday when Woods and Jordan played together in the pro-am, and that was evident by a crowd that stood a dozen deep around some tees, spilling down both sides of the fairway.

It was the crowd Woods usually sees at a major championship. Rarer still was that they weren't there to watch him.

Even in retirement, Jordan is a megastar around the world, and especially in North Carolina. He led the Tar Heels to a national title in 1982 and now is part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, although he isn't in town much.

He stood over shots with a cigar in his mouth. He had a swagger. But then, he also had a golf club in his hand, and Jordan's mystique was lost in bunkers and trees, sometimes both.

``Y'all better move,'' he told the gallery on the fifth hole. ``I'll tell you that now, and I'll tell you that in court.''

Then he rifled a shot off a branch that was hanging over one fan's head.

Woods and Jordan first played golf in 1997 in Chicago, after Woods won his first Masters. They struck up a friendship _ both are pitchmen for Nike, although Jordan had Ping clubs in his bag Wednesday _ and both can relate to fame and all its trappings. They talk often about what gives them a competitive edge, although this day was about playing golf.

And there was plenty of showmanship, especially on the 11th hole.

Woods was waiting for the fairway to clear when Jordan walked by and kicked his ball off the tee toward a young boy in the gallery. ``You can have it,'' Jordan told the boy.

Woods re-teed, and at the top of his back swing, Jordan cleared his throat loud enough to make Woods stop. The world's No. 1 player set up over the ball again and hit a hard draw down the middle of the fairway, locking eyes with Jordan in a mock staredown. Jordan then ripped his driver down the fairway, and as he stooped to pick up his tee, looked back at Woods and returned the stare.

The chatter was endless, and as always, Jordan was doing most of the talking. He was asked after the round how many majors Woods might have won if he had to be paired with Jordan during the final round.

``Not as many,'' Jordan said. ``I can get in his head.''

Woods has other thoughts this week at the Wachovia, a tournament he missed last year because of his father's ailing health. Earl Woods died of cancer on May 3, and Thursday's opening round will be the one-year anniversary of Woods losing his mentor, father and friend.

One year later, he has moved on. His wife is expecting their first child in two months, and he's gearing up for the U.S. Open.

``This time last year was not a fun period in my life,'' he said. ``But now a year later, here I am, looking forward to becoming a father. Times have changed.''