For 40-year-old PGA Tour rookie Gary Christian, playing the third round of The Barclays with Tiger Woods Saturday is as close to a major experience as he's ever had, and he came away satisfied even though his 77 dropped him well out of contention.
"Tiger is an absolute gentleman. I gained new respect for what he goes through every week, the crowd yelling at him, giving him grief. He was very pleasant to play with."
Christian was joined on the practice range and the first tee by Dr. Jeff Poplarski, a chiropractor from Massapequa who is the caddie chairman for The Barclays and a well-known golf performance specialist. He is also hosting Christian at his home. Poplarski said Christian was "excited but relaxed about playing with Woods."
After a good tee shot on the first hole, Christian walked side by side with Woods down the slope to the fairway, and the two were engaged in lively conversation. But a nervous three-putt for bogey on the first green put Christian on a rocky road. He made three other bogeys and a double bogey on the fifth hole to shoot 6-over 42 on the front, but he then settled down to make nine straight pars on the back nine.
"There was no moisture left in the greens," he said. "I like to put my putter down behind the ball and take one hand off. When I did it slipped a little. I made a nervy putt, then I made another one and three-putted."
Christian uses a lime-yellow colored ball, which did not go unnoticed by the galleries. When he left his first putt short on the first green, one wag said: "It's a range ball. What do you expect?"
This was Christian's first shot at the big time. He played a practice round with Tom Watson at the Greenbrier Classic, fulfilling a dream, but this was Tiger Woods, this was rarefied air and this counted. He was happy the way he handled it.
"I could go home, lie in the fetal position and say woe is me," Christian said. "Or I can go home, dust myself off, and get ready to play a good 18 holes tomorrow."
And now he has the Tiger experience. "He was exactly the same all the way around, whether he hit a bad shot or missed a putt," Christian said. "I have a huge newfound respect for him."
So it's back to Jeff Poplarski's house for the night. Christian is driving one of the BMW courtesy cars with The Barclays logo on it. So what did Poplarski's neighbors ask him?
"Is Tiger Woods staying with you?" Poplarski said.