SHANGHAI, China -- It was difficult to make it past the practice green Thursday at Shanghai's Sheshan International Golf Club. Prescient spectators were pinned against its white picket fence. Many more crowded behind them, several bodies deep, necks craned, cameras and mobile phones raised high in the air. Tiny female tournament employees in red bodysuits held hands, trying their best to form a human barrier that would allow players to move freely between the putting and chipping areas. It was a futile attempt.
"Laohu must be here," a man said as he squeezed his way through the swarm.
Yes, he was. In Mandarin Chinese, laohu means Tiger, and the world's No. 1 golfer, wearing pastel orange, was doing his best to ignore the commotion going on all around him.
It's not difficult to figure out who the top draw is at this week's star-studded WGC-HSBC Champions tournament. Just look for the crowd. Or just listen to it. Everywhere you go, all you hear is one word: Laohu.
"Twenty minutes until Laohu tees off!"
"Let's go find Laohu!"
No one will question Woods' appeal to the golfing community in China. When asked about his client's profile in the country, agent Mark Steinberg doesn't hesitate with his answer.
"Tiger's a rock star wherever he goes," said IMG's Global Managing Director of Golf. "He is truly a global icon."
But if you venture beyond the course in China, beyond an international city like Shanghai, you are presented with an alternate reality.
According to an ongoing study, the world's No. 1 golfer -- the first athlete to reach $1 billion in earnings -- not only doesn't rank in the top 10 in popularity of foreign athletes in China, he doesn't even crack the top 50. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan, six years after retirement, checks in at No. 7.
"This has to do with two factors: participation and viewership," explained Greg Paull, who heads up R3, the Beijing-based company behind the quarterly analysis. "Golf currently ranks very poorly in China on both counts. Now all that said, it's our understanding that Tiger could become a highly marketable property in China. Chinese admire and respect the quest for perfection and look for leaders."
Twenty thousand Chinese consumers in 10 cities are polled for the ongoing study. NBA and professional soccer stars dominate the list, which, not surprisingly, also doesn't include any MLB or NFL players.
While golf is growing in China, no one would go so far as to call it popular. Estimates of the Chinese golfing population range from a couple hundred thousand to a few million. Any way you shake it, that's statistically zero percent of the Chinese population.
But it's also a very wealthy segment of citizens. Thus, one of the brands that does use Tiger in Mainland China is luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer. He'll also show up from time to time in ads for Accenture, Gillette and, until recently, Buick. Still, these are all global campaigns, not advertisements designed specifically for the Chinese market.
Nike, one of Tiger's biggest partners elsewhere, largely limits the use of his image to in-store promotions, whereas Kobe Bryant, another high-profile Nike athlete, is nearly ubiquitous in China, with China-specific campaigns.
"This will definitely change," Paull said. "Golf is going through the fastest change of any sport in China right now. There were more golf courses completed in the last three years than the previous thirty years. Nike's focus to date has been on its core business -- and that means NBA. But as the market becomes more sophisticated and niches appear, they have the assets to leverage those niches."
Tom Doctoroff, Greater China CEO for advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, said he was "shocked" Tiger didn't rate in the R3 study. He believes Tiger's marketing potential in mainland China, especially for luxury brands, is "huge" -- if the advertiser can afford him.
"The key thing about Tiger Woods in China is that he represents the little guy who defeated the conventional order or redefined the limits and possibilities," said Doctoroff, author of "Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer." "It's the fact that he comes from the non-privileged class and that he has a very unconventional background and has succeeded as a global icon. And in that sense, there's a lot of projection that takes place -- projection of aspiration. He's not Yao Ming, because he's not as immediately accessible, but I think he can be a very, very big deal in China."
Back at Sheshan on Thursday, 17-year-old Winson Tay, from Singapore, sure thought Tiger was a big deal. He was in the heart of the throng at the practice green, trying hard to lock down an unobstructed view of his idol. Wearing blue jeans and Nike golf shoes, Tay jumped up and down for a glimpse, and then settled for a photo of Tiger's bag.
"I hope I can get an autograph," Tay said, as he -- and hundreds of others -- followed Tiger to the driving range. His father, Chok Leng Tay, 47, camera dangling over his Tiger Woods polo shirt, struggled to keep up.
"He's crazy about Tiger," Mr. Tay said. "I say to him you should see all the stars. They are all very good: Westwood, Mickelson. But young guys like him want to see Tiger.
"He was so excited about this event. He couldn't sleep."
The Tays made the five-hour flight from Singapore specifically for the tournament. They weren't the only ones.
"The airport was packed," Mr. Tay said. "Going through customs, everyone -- people from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia -- was talking about Tiger."
Over at the driving range, fans stood on plastic chairs in an effort to see over the mass of people that had accumulated behind Tiger. There, Lisa Ye was trying to round up her 9-year-old son, Wang Yanzhang, so they could secure favorable spots near the 10th tee, where Tiger would soon tee off.
"When he saw Tiger, he just totally forgot about all the golf course manners," Ye, 32, said of Wang. "He was like, 'Haha! Tiger!'"
Ye, who drove 10 hours from Wuhan, in central China, estimates she and her husband have spent upwards of 2 million yuan ($292,954) on their son's one-year-old golfing habit. They bought a house and membership at a golf club so he could have easy access to facilities.
"He started to play golf just because he likes Tiger," explained Ye, who herself took up the game seven years ago. "In China, people who play golf might know about players other than Tiger. But normally, people only know Tiger. Even people who don't play golf, the only thing they know about the sport is Tiger."
At the 10th hole, it was easy to tell Tiger's tee time was approaching. A gallery, nearly 1,000 strong, lined the ropes and extended beyond the midpoint of the fairway. Cameras clicked. Phones rang. (Despite several signs reminding spectators such devices are banned.)
"Yes, I can see Laohu right now!" one man shouted into his phone.
Tiger's following swelled as the sunny Thursday wore on. Other groups were lucky to get a small fraction of Tiger's fan base. And this is a field that features 20 of the world's top 30 players. Bad news for Ross Fisher and Thongchai Jaidee, who had the misfortune of being paired with the main attraction.
On Tiger's opening tee shot, an overanxious amateur photographer started snapping away during the downswing. Tiger flinched, sent his ball wide right, and glared toward the guilty party.
"There's certainly a lot of people out there," Tiger said after his 5-under 67, which put him 3 strokes back of leader Nick Watney. "There was a lot of people moving and things. We had to stay pretty focused."
The fans had no problem staying focused -- they just had to follow the man in the orange shirt.
"After Laohu tees off, he will suck all the people away," one fan predicted. He was correct. As Tiger's group disappeared in the distance, so too did the crowd.
Only a few dozen spectators remained at the 10th tee for the next batch of golfers, which included Zhang Lianwei, arguably China's most popular player.
This weekend, event organizers told ESPN.com they expect Sheshan to be "bursting at the seams" with more that 10,000 spectators.
"They are coming to see Tiger," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The fact that it is a World Golf Championship is good for golf people, but for average people here, they are only interested in No. 1."
Dan Washburn is a Shanghai-based writer. Visit him online at http://danwashburn.com.