Commentary

Distractions continue for Woods, field

Originally Published: November 6, 2009
By Dan Washburn | Special to ESPN.com

SHANGHAI, China -- It happened again. A phone rang. Or maybe a camera clicked. It's hard to keep track of the distractions at the WGC-HSBC Champions. But this time, Tiger Woods stepped back and regrouped -- twice. He wasn't going to let crowd noise affect his opening tee shot for the second consecutive day.

"There was some disturbance and distractions out there," said Woods, who birdied the hole and finished with a 5-under 67 that put him in a tie atop the leaderboard of the $7 million event at 10-under. "The marshals and everyone is trying to give us an opportunity to play, which is great. But certainly there were some moments that we are going to have to back off, and we kind of did it all day."

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Scott Halleran/Getty Images Despite all the noise around him, Tiger Woods still managed to shoot 67 for the second straight day to tie for the lead halfway through the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai, China.

Perhaps the biggest disturbance had nothing to do with technology, and more to do with alcohol. At the 13th tee, a boisterous and, according to marshals, beer-soaked man delayed play -- he had been screaming "Tiger!" since the 12th green -- and had to be hauled off by the biggest and burliest member of Tiger's private security detail. Afterward, fans who had been calling for the troublemaker's removal cheered, and play resumed.

The marshals responsible for controlling the crowd following Tiger -- which at times Friday was more than a couple of thousand strong, dwarfing any of the day's other galleries -- have come to expect such disruptions.

"Everybody wants to have marshaled for Tiger once, but once you've done it you probably don't want to do it again," said Stewart Beck, originally from Chicago, who had been heading up the HSBC's group of volunteer marshals, mostly Shanghai expats, since the tournament began in 2005. "It's the one group where you know you have to work really hard."

It's not necessarily the size of the crowd that's the problem -- Tiger's galleries creep into the thousands regardless where he plays -- it's the many noises it makes. Despite numerous signs and announcements stating they are forbidden, mobile phones and cameras -- professional-grade, with lenses the size of cheerleaders' megaphones -- are omnipresent at Sheshan International Golf Club. Most fairways have the feel of the electronics department of the downtown Shanghai Best Buy.

Unlike some major tournaments, the HSBC does not have metal detectors at entrance gates, and organizers say they haven't figured out how to logistically make an outright gadget ban work. So it's up to marshals to encourage spectators to power off. They start with kindness. Then after repeated warnings, they scold fans as if they were naughty children.

Sometimes it works. But listen closely, and each shot comes with its own soundtrack: the faint beeps of cameras focusing, or a chorus of shutters closing. Sometimes a phone will ring. And often the call will be answered.

"Yeah, I know the rules because I play, too," said one Shanghainese man in Tiger's gallery after being reprimanded by a marshal for talking on the phone. "I just forgot to turn it off. It was an important customer, so I had to take the call."

Beck says it's natural that a golf event in China, where the sport is still only 25 years old and international tournaments are still a novelty, will feature a bit of "localization."

"People like to get a photo with a golf star," Beck explained. "For the most part, they are not trying to interfere with the players. They don't know what the boundaries are yet. They are still trying to figure that out. Most of the players know that it's going to be crazy, so they just kind of expect it and are a little more patient."

Volunteer Bryan Marsh, originally from Hartford, Conn., will be marshaling Tiger's group throughout the tournament. He's done it before in Shanghai.

"Crowd behavior had gotten better every year up until this year," Marsh said. "But this year, everybody seems to be out with the cameras and really pushing it because Tiger's back. Thursday's crowd was like Sunday three years ago [the last time Tiger played here]. The crowds are so much bigger this year."

Marsh likened the HSBC crowd following Tiger to water: You spill it, and it finds every crack, every opening. That makes the marshals the little boys trying to plug leaks in the dike with their fingers. It's a decidedly uphill battle.

"Here everybody tries to get around every barricade or control you try to set up," he said. "People run up through the woods and try to sneak around us -- anything they can do to get by. They are just pounding and pushing to get that rope down and get past us."

And often the movement starts before Tiger's playing partners -- for the past two days, England's Ross Fisher and Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee -- even have a chance to finish. Once Tiger's done, everyone murmurs and moves.

Spectator Yan Mingchuan, who flew three hours from Chongqing, in central China, for the event, said many fans got their tickets for free, as he did.

"So, they don't really know anything about golf," said Yan, who started playing the game a year ago. "Look, Fisher is also a very good player. Look at how good that putt was, but not many people care or pay attention."

But even Yan, wearing a maroon Tiger Woods baseball cap, couldn't resist getting his photo taken at the event many are calling "Asia's major." He repeatedly asked this reporter to take his photo while Tiger putted in the background.

"I know I should not take pictures and use phones," Yan said, "but it's common -- he's a superstar. Lots of people are taking pictures. I think it's the same everywhere around the world."

Just then, two women instructed to stand still ignored the marshals and kept on walking. A short Chinese man in a yellow windbreaker shook his head and said, "They don't know anything. They don't understand the game. And they don't listen. But what can you do?"

Then he raced off, shouting back, "Sorry, I have to go to wait at Tiger's next hole!"

Meanwhile, 36-hole co-leader Nick Watney played in relative anonymity Friday. His gallery maxed out at around 200.

"I wasn't distracted too bad at any one point," Watney said after shooting a 2-under 70. "It was just kind of -- there's been a few camera clicks, but for the most part, I feel like once I kind of get going into a shot that I don't hear a lot."

We'll see what he says tomorrow after playing a round with Tiger.

Dan Washburn is a Shanghai-based writer. Visit him online at http://danwashburn.com. Alice Liu contributed to this report.

ALSO SEE