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Rehearsing jokes, sleepless nights: Tour players' tales of the first time playing with Tiger

What do you do the first time you play with Tiger Woods? Tell a joke? Shut up and keep up? For many tour pros experiencing this second act of Woods, it's a nerve-wracking experience. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- On a sweltering summer day that saw him sweat through a couple of golf shirts, Tiger Woods emerged from the scoring area to a scene he has encountered hundreds of times in his career: fans screaming his name at the top of their lungs, imploring him for an autograph, a photo, a golf glove, a ball.

Woods headed toward the group of people waiting for him and posed for photos, shook a few hands and signed a few autographs.

He was doing all this for Bronson Burgoon, a PGA Tour player whom Woods likely could not identify in a lineup and one Woods had just competed against while playing alongside him that day in the final round of the Quicken Loans National.

That development might seem a bit odd, but it is one that has played out several times over the past year, as Woods saw a successful comeback from spinal fusion surgery mesmerize not just golf fans but also fellow competitors who were just as thrilled to see him back -- and play with him.

"My generation grew up watching him," said Burgoon, 31, who is in his third full season on the PGA Tour. "When he came on the scene, he was the young guy and beating everyone's brains in.

"Now it's different. We're getting to play with a guy we idolized growing up. It's different than one of his contemporaries. We were all watching him break records we thought would never be possible. It's a different feeling. I think he understands that. He was more than gracious to take pictures and talk with my wife, my caddie. He was so cool about it."

Woods is expected to play in the Players Championship this week after a neck strain kept him from the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It will be his 22nd official start on the PGA Tour since his return to competition, with a rock-star-like scene greeting him nearly every step of the way.

Who knew that a bunch of young players in the game would be just as on board with the hysteria?

"It just means I'm old," Woods said. "I've been around the tour for the better part of 22 years now, so I've been out here a while. That's one of the neat things about our sport -- it can cross so many different generations.

"I remember playing with Jack [Nicklaus] in his final PGA [Championship], and he said he played with Gene Sarazen in his final PGA. You don't get to hear that in any other sport. We cross so many different generations, and this is one of them."

Burgoon played with Woods during the final round of the Quicken Loans National at TPC Potomac, where Woods tied for fourth in his first start after missing the cut at the U.S. Open.

So keen was Burgoon on playing with Woods that he nervously watched the scores come in that Saturday afternoon, figuring that a Bill Haas birdie on the final hole would set up such a scenario.

"And my heart sank because [Haas] had a wedge in his hand, tugged it and dropped the club in the middle of the fairway," Burgoon recalled. "Then he knocked in about a 40-footer, and I swear, I was so happy. I thought it was fantastic. I wasn't going to be afraid of the moment. What a cool opportunity. Just embrace it and have some fun with it."

Burgoon did, shooting a final-round 67 to finish tied for sixth. He recorded his first career top-10 on the PGA Tour while playing alongside Woods.

Not only did that round give Burgoon a boost of confidence but he also came away with a strong appreciation for what Woods endures every time he plays, as well as a learning experience that will help him in the future.

"I know that the moment is not going to get any bigger than that," he said. "That is as big as I'm ever going to see in terms of people. Even if I'm in the final group at a major, I'm not going to see as many people as I saw that day. It was a ton. My brother flew out to watch, and he had to hang out a hole behind. It was crazy.

"It's kind of cool because he elevates your adrenaline. Sometimes out here, you're finishing up late, fans have left, you can get a little complacent. No way you can do that in that environment. It was electric. The hair actually stood up on my arm on the first tee. He started walking, and everyone on the hill started cheering. And I thought, here we go."

It was one of several occasions when Woods was paired with a player whom he otherwise might not have known. Between him and caddie Joe LaCava, there had to be some Googling before several first-tee meetings.

From Sam Burns at the Honda Classic to Brandon Harkins at the Wells Fargo Championship to Mackenzie Hughes at the Players Championship to Joel Dahmen and Burgoon at the Quicken Loans to Shaun Norris at The Open to Austin Cook at the Northern Trust to Cody Gribble and Peter Malnati this year at the Genesis Open, Woods has seen no shortage of unfamiliar faces. Many of them were in high school or even grade school when he was dominating the game.

Back then, Woods was not much for small talk on the golf course, especially among his so-called rivals. But these encounters have shown a softer side, as Woods is more willing to engage with his peers, recognizing that many of these younger players are truly ecstatic about the opportunity.

"It was like a dream come true," said Dahmen, 31, who is in his third full season on the PGA Tour and played with Woods during the third round of the Quicken Loans. "That night [prior] was kind of wild. Didn't sleep well. Thought about what I was going to say to him. Should I come up with some jokes? I was kind of stunned, basically.

"I was probably as nervous as I've ever been on that first tee. Walking from the putting green to the tee, and I got out there before he did, and it was loud. And when I walked through, it got louder and louder. It was the coolest moment. It was crazy.

"He teed off, and then the mob ran off after the golf ball. I made sure I got my tee in the ground as quick as I could so I didn't have anybody watching that. And I swung as hard as I could. It took me a few holes to settle down."

During that round, Woods at one point birdied four consecutive holes to get into contention.

Dahmen said he tried to take it all in.

"My caddie [Geno Bonnalie] was standing right next to me on the green, and he yells, "This is f---ing awesome!' Screamed it, right next to me. Nobody could hear it. The roar was so loud. We were just laughing. To be in that moment with him was incredible."

Burns had the presence of mind to try to break the ice, so he walked off the first tee with Woods during the final round at the Honda Classic and quipped, "Can you believe all these people are here to see me?"

"It was a very cool day, something I'll always look back on and be thankful it happened," said Burns, 22, who was 1 year old when Woods won his first Masters in 1997.

Hughes was paired with Woods at the Players Championship a year ago. At that event, Woods made the cut on the number, then went out early Saturday and began piling up birdies on his way to a 65.

"I know it's 90 degrees," Hughes, 28, said that day. "But I can assure you, for me, it was goose bumps and shivers out there hearing all the noise and playing with him."

This type of pairing happens based on scores in the first two rounds. On Thursdays and Fridays, Woods is typically grouped with other major champions or highly ranked players.

Groupings are done in tiers, with major winners and multiple tournaments winners traditionally put together, followed by regular PGA Tour members and then qualifying school grads, sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifiers.

A player such as Cook, who was in his second season in 2018, would need some good fortune -- and relatively decent scores -- to be paired with Woods.

It finally happened for the final round at the Northern Trust, and, "When I saw the message come through that I was paired with him, I had to take a deep breath," he said. "I knew I'd be nervous.

"I was going to be teeing off in front of the guy I had always looked up to, my idol on the golf course. I will always remember that.

"He was a really nice guy. He answered my questions, started some conversations, never big-dogged me. For a guy in his position, I understand. It was pretty cool."

It was just as much of a thrill for Cook's caddie, Kip Henley, a 14-year veteran who had never been in Woods' group.

"I was like a kid in a candy store playing with him the first time," Henley said. "I spent 11 years with Brian Gay, and he wanted no part of playing with Tiger. I always thought that was funny, and as far as I know, I don't think he ever has, and he's been on tour for 20 years."

Henley has worked for a slew of players who were never grouped with Woods when he was with them. That list includes Eric Axley, Boo Weekley, Vijay Singh and Jeff Overton.

"I have always just been a huge Tiger fan," Henley said. "He was awesome to go out with and very considerate of us. He was as cool as I had hoped he would be. He knew me and my little brother, Brent, were loopers and has always been nice to us, but pinning him down on a conversation is very tough unless you're in his group because so many people want a piece of his time."

A few common themes from those asked about Woods were that they were not surprised he won again and that they expect him to contend in tournaments going forward.

And, of course, there were the moments of awe.

"Nobody hits their irons like he does," Burgoon said. "Nobody. It was so unbelievable. The sound his irons make is so much different than the sound other people's irons make. And that's not to say that other people aren't good ball strikers.

"It's just different. I don't know how to describe it -- just different."