Akron, Ohio — Almost everything has changed, but nothing has changed.
Since Tiger Woods last grabbed a championship trophy at Firestone Country Club — a mere two summers ago, although it seems much longer — he has a acquired a new caddie, a new swing coach, new management, new injuries, a new reputation and a new vulnerability.
He lost his wife, badly tarnished his golden-boy image and dropped like a boulder in the World Golf Ranking.
But the man still triggers a frenzy wherever he goes.
Immediately after the announcement Thursday that he would make his long-awaited return from the disabled list at the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, requests for media credentials shot up.
Keep in mind that most news organizations plan trips well in advance to save money, and the dates for this tournament have been set for more than a year. Yet just since Tiger tweeted his intentions, 18 more news organizations and 30 more reporters have signed on.
That brings the total media attendance to 367 reporters from 125 organizations and nine countries. Seriously.
On Tuesday morning, at 9:53 a.m., seven minutes early, Woods strolled into the interview room looking dapper, if a bit monochromatic, in a black Nike cap, a dark gray Nike shirt and dark gray slacks.
Anyone who expected the 35-year-old legend to seem sheepish after sitting out nearly 12 weeks with knee and Achilles’ tendon injuries was in for a surprise. Except for a new configuration of facial hair, which makes him look a bit like a Cablinasian Amishman, he seemed like much the same fellow as the one who made his Firestone debut in the final year of the previous century.
Woods was relaxed and confident, often funny, occasionally pointed and always articulate.
Questions flew in all sorts of different accents, no surprise given the presence of sports hounds from Australia, Japan, Germany, Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Korea.
Even if the leaderboard no longer changes much based on Tiger’s presence or absence, the overall atmosphere certainly does.
Larry Dorman, veteran golf writer for the New York Times, looked around the media workroom early Tuesday morning and said, “I’ve been here on Tuesday before, and I’ve never seen as many people in this room as I’m looking at right now.
“There’s always a different vibe when Tiger’s around. Now it’s different in a way; before, you were there to see if he was going to win, and now you’re looking to see how he’s progressing. It’s caused by a different thing, but it’s still a Tiger kind of buzz.”
ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi was among those whose plans changed because of Tiger. He was scheduled to cover another event this week but was redirected at the last minute.
Unlike past years, the course was closed to the public on Tuesday, mainly because the number of fans paying to watch practice rounds two days before the actual competition has not been large enough to justify the cost of staffing the grounds, particularly in terms of security.
But even that changed after Senor Woods decided to come.
“We definitely ramped up our security,” said Akron police officer Mike Gilbride, stationed at one of the entrances. “We were not supposed to be here today. When they found out Tiger was coming, they wanted an additional four officers.”
Twenty-nine minutes after entering the media lair, Woods exited stage left. Just outside the door, he was ambushed by the always amiable Bob Stevens, a former Cleveland TV sports anchor who now lives in Hilton Head, S.C., and works for the PGA Tour Network.
A few Q and A’s later, Woods climbed into the back seat of a silver Cadillac CTS 4 with Michigan plates and sped off into the bright summer morning, allegedly sound of both body and mind.