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May 2, 2007

Inside The Ropes With MJ, Tiger and Skipper

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Amidst the lined fairways, the screaming fans, the outstretched hands in search of an autograph and the constant clicking of cameras hoping to digitally catch a piece of history, Tiger Woods could not have been more relaxed.

For the first – and perhaps only – time in his illustrious career, Woods was not the center of attention when he hit the links Wednesday at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte.

There was another sports icon that cast an even larger shadow on the course.

NBA legend and Bobcats Managing Member of Basketball Operations Michael Jordan teamed with Woods at the Wachovia Championship Pro-Am, marking the first time the two, who first teed off together in a friendly round in 1997, played in an official tournament.

Bobcats minority owner and Beck Imports of the Carolinas President and CEO Skipper Beck rounded out the threesome.

But there was little doubt who the center of attention was, and that was just fine with golf’s No. 1 player.

“It was nice. (Jordan) got all the attention, so it was great,” said Woods at round’s end. “I got to play a nice, quiet practice round. I actually loved it. I was able to walk around, do my thing and get ready for (this weekend’s Wachovia Championship).”

However, this round wasn’t just about the golf. There was plenty of good-natured ribbing between two close friends, Jordan’s continuing interaction with the fans, Beck’s successful effort to not make himself an afterthought and more, and was there.

Take a look back with us at Wednesday’s sights and sounds from inside the ropes.

Early Morning
We arrive at the Quail Hollow Club at approximately 6 a.m. and the crowds are already starting to gather as people eagerly make the walk down to the practice range. By the time we make our way out to the range at 6:45 a.m., the crowd – including one of the newest Panthers, quarterback David Carr and his family – is already lined up two deep along the back of the range and the grandstand was quickly filling up.

A focused Tiger showed up on the range around 6:55 a.m. looking as if he was ready for the Wachovia Championship to begin, crushing ball after ball with the rising sun providing a perfect backdrop.

Jordan arrives on the practice range at 7:10 a.m. and Tiger’s intense look softens as his friend approaches. They share some laughs, hit a few balls, sign an autograph or two and head to hole No.1 for their 7:30 a.m. tee time.

Hole No. 1
It’s 7:30 a.m. and the crowd is packed into the grandstands and the gallery around the first tee is already four-plus deep. Add to that the 25-or-more photographers and numerous media members that surround the hole, and you suddenly start to realize you’re about to be a part of something special.

The threesome arrives and is introduced to the fans, with Jordan’s roar already overshadowing Tiger's – a glimpse of things to come. Tiger is the first to tee off. Naturally, he rips one down the fairway. Beck is next to hit, and after dropping one nicely on the fairway, he jokingly drops to one knee as tournament director Kym Hougham runs to him with an oxygen mask, getting a chuckle out of Jordan.

“I had butterflies,” Beck said. “I wanted to hit a good shot for all of my friends that were watching and the team, too. I just felt good that I hit a good shot. It was kind of like, ‘Take a deep breath, grab some oxygen and now you can finish the round.’”

Hole No. 2
Jordan pulls out his first cigar, but doesn’t light it yet, causing a fan to call out, “No cigar until you make par.” Jordan lights his cigar before leaving the tee, but it doesn’t help. Woods and Beck put it on the green on the short par three and Jordan is left to chip up as the crew makes par on the hole.

Hole No. 3
Beck continues to hit the ball solid off the tee, seemingly unfazed by playing with two of the greatest athletes in the world. With his comfort level rising, he tells Jordan, “Don’t be so tight – lighten up.” Led by Woods, the team earns its first birdie as their gallery continues to grow.

Hole No. 4
Beck continues to keep his drives on the fairway and is playing solid golf, while Woods lets one get away from him into the gallery down the right-hand side of the fairway. A fan is holding a pair of broken sunglasses when Woods arrives looking for his ball. “It broke my glasses,” the fan laughs as he holds up the pieces to show Tiger. “Really?” he asks and goes into his bag, pulls out a ball, shakes the fan’s hand and gives him the ball. “Sorry about that,” Woods said. Meanwhile, the gallery continues to multiply, causing the official standing next to me to say, “This is a Sunday crowd at most tournaments. I don’t know how early they got here, but they’re here.”

Hole No. 5
Tiger walks with his arm around Bobcats Majority Owner Bob Johnson between holes No. 4 and 5. Ah, to be a fly on the wall. Jordan kicks another shot into the woods on his first attempt but recovers to make par as Woods’ group opens up -3 in the first five holes.

Hole No. 6
Midway through the sixth hole, we catch up with Bobcats guard Brevin Knight to get his take on what he’s seen so far.

“Let’s just get down to the truth of the matter – Mike’s not that good, and he does all this talking about wanting to play against me and this and that,” Knight laughed. “That’s why I’m out here – I’m doing a little scouting. I would have expected him to be alright with all of these people, but maybe it’s getting to him.”

As Knight is talking, Jordan chips out of a sand trap in front and to the left of the green, drawing a small roar from the crowd.

“Whoa, look at Mike,” Knight smiled. “Okay, he made a good shot. One out of every five or six holes isn’t bad.”

Knight knows the course, too. He was Beck’s partner in the event last season when the two teamed with Billy Mayfair to shoot five under par.

“I have a little grudge with Skipper, because for him to drop me for Mike, in the words of Mike Tyson, that was ‘ludicrous,’" he said. " If I’m out there right now, we’re at least four under par instead of three."

Hole No. 7
Jordan gets a shot in at his pal Woods after sinking a par putt at No. 7, mocking Tiger by slowly pumping his right fist and holding the pose. Woods can do nothing but laugh.

Hole No. 8
With the gallery beginning to fill the fairways from tee to green consistently now, we catch up with Johnson to get his feelings on how things are going.

“The Wachovia people have put on a great event, and you couldn’t ask for a better combination of sports icons, so this has been great,” the Bobcats Majority Owner said. “You’ve got Michael, who is with the Bobcats now, is from North Carolina and played at North Carolina. You’ve got Tiger – the greatest golf pro in the world. And another thing, you’re adding diversity to the crowd. These are two African American sports giants, and that creates another dynamic for a lot of fans who probably aren’t exposed to golf.

“The only problem is Tiger chose Michael over me,” Johnson laughed. “I just have to keep reminding Michael that I own the team. No, it’s great. They’ve been friends for a long time, so it’s been great for the fans and you can tell they’re out here enjoying it.”

Wanting to get in the act of good-natured ribbing, even Johnson couldn’t resist taking a shot at Jordan as he passed by during the interview. “There’s no doubt he plays basketball better than he plays golf,” Johnson said with Jordan within earshot, drawing a look from the legend. “But seriously, it’s good for the Bobcats to be here and to align ourselves with this event, and continue to align ourselves with activities in Charlotte. I’m just excited to be here on a great day in Charlotte.”

Hole No. 9
A brief scare for everyone as Woods stopped short on his backswing while teeing off, seemed to injure his back and didn’t finish the hole. “Somebody took a sequence photo and I tried to stop,” Woods said. “My body didn’t quite react the way I wanted it to react so I took a hole off.”

Hole No. 10
Jordan’s interaction with the crowd really begins to pick up here as the threesome makes the turn, as the group begins to have longer waits for groups in front of them.

Beck jumps in front of MJ as photographers surround him and asks, “If I stand in front of him, will you take my picture?” With cameras clicking all around, Jordan tells Beck, “This is your 15 minutes of fame right here.”

MJ then proceeded to field a few questions from the gallery, commenting on the Bobcats saying, “We’re going to be alright next year. If we get the No. 1 pick, we’re going to be really good.” When asked who the Bobcats would take should they land the first pick, he refused to comment on any players, chuckling “Last time I did that, I got fined.”

As two groups tee off at 10, Jordan mentions to pro Trevor Immelman, “Don’t hold us up.”

Hole No. 11
Jordan gives a young fan an unexpected souvenir when he kicks Woods ball off his tee to the youngster in the crowd. Tentative at first, Jordan tells him, “Go ahead, you can get it,” as he scampers to gather up the ball. Jordan’s hi-jinx aren’t over, however, as he coughs as Woods prepares to tee off. Unfazed, Wood tees off again and rips one down the center of the fairway. Not to be outdone, Jordan turns to Woods as he tees up, almost issuing a warning of, “I’m used to noise, so that doesn’t bother me.” He then proceeds to outdrive Woods for the first time in the round and stare him down as they walk down the fairway.

Hole No. 12
While waiting to tee off again, someone in the gallery sparks up a conversation with Jordan about Charles Barkley’s golf game.

“He’d probably kill half this gallery if he was out here,” Jordan laughed. “Back of the head, front of the head, it wouldn’t matter – he’ll hit you anywhere… He’s good on the range and doesn’t have a hitch in his swing, but lessons won’t do him any good. I can say he was a great basketball player though.”

Also during Jordan’s exchange with the gallery, a small boy sitting on his dad’s shoulders caught Jordan off guard when he stated, “My dad has seen you play basketball,” in essence showing his age. “Is that what he told you,” MJ laughed. “That’s pretty good, kid, that’s pretty good.”

Hole No. 13
Again slowed by the groups in front of them, Jordan and Woods strike up a conversation about the best players in the NBA. Among the players mentioned – Kobe Bryant, who Jordan stated, “Will get you with that killer instinct,” and Dwyane Wade, who is “a little bit crazy, in the right way.” Woods also brings up Steve Nash, “who makes (the Suns) what they are, right?” But Jordan points out, “take Kobe off the Lakers and Nash off the Suns – who wins that series?” The conversation is interrupted by a fan who calls out, “Hey Tiger, how is your (pregnant) wife doing? Get your sleep now,” to which Woods can only laugh and tee up his ball.

Hole No. 14
After passing a large group of kids between hole 13 and 14, Jordan laughs and says, “You must be skipping school for this, huh?” They weren't the only ones - thousands of others surely missed work on Wednesday.

Jordan’s poor tee shot is the quickly forgotten when an older woman asks him for one of his cigars and he goes into his bag to oblige her.

“I told him I wanted the one in his mouth, but he wouldn’t give me that one, so he gave me this one,” Kay Rosen of Charlotte said. “He told me I have to smoke it, but I don’t smoke cigars, so I’ll keep this forever.”

Hole No. 15
The Wachovia Championship’s General Chairman Mac Everett pays a visit to the 15th hole, and we catch up with him.

“This is a great day for the Wachovia Championship,” Everett said. “We’ve got lots of great pairings out here, and of course Michael and Tiger are right at the top of that. It’s really been the perfect storm in a positive sense. We’ve got a great field, a great course and wonderful volunteers. Everything has just come together to make this the best of our five years.”

Beck then gets into the needling act on the green, intentionally stepping on MJ’s ball as he walks by. “Tiger Woods can do that,” Jordan says. “But you can’t do that.”

Hole No. 16
Jordan is back into the gallery on the left side of the fairway, and with fans standing just a few feet around him, he mentions that “these fans must really trust MJ.” With good reason too. Jordan clears the crowd, the ropes and a bush, dropping his shot just in front of the green.

Hole No. 17
Another classic exchange between Jordan and the fans as one bystander asks, “Can I get a ball?” Jordan responds, “I don’t have many left, and this looks like a tough hole.” Another fan responds, “10 to 1 it’s in the water.” To which Jordan turns and acts as if he is going to tee off into that fan’s direction in the gallery. Instead he rotates back towards the green saying, “I’ll take that bet." He easily clears the water but ends up in the gallery around the green. “But it wasn’t in the water though,” he turns and laughs as he walks toward the green.

Woods then got in his best dig on Jordan during the round. When Jordan's next shot overshoots the green and is headed towards the water, Woods picks up MJ’s ball with his putter and appears to be ready to flip it to Jordan. With Jordan's hand outstretched, Woods opts to flip the ball back over his shoulder and into the water instead.

“I’ll just throw out a jab every now and then, but basically this is my home court, so it’s a little easier for me. On his court, it would be a little different deal.”

Hole No. 18
The threesome wraps up their round shooting an 11-under-par 61 in what was a memorable afternoon for anyone in attendance.

“I play with him all the time, but thought this would be good for the city of Charlotte,” Jordan said. “I figured it would be a good opportunity to come out, hang out with the fans, play a good round of golf and take the opportunity to spend some time with him. I haven’t seen him in a while because our schedules have been opposite, but any time I can spend some time with him, I love doing it.”