St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

You tee off at 6:42 -- with Tiger

Ralph Ghioto III, a Tampa car dealership president, played with Woods in a pro-am in San Diego last week.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


For most golf enthusiasts, watching Tiger Woods and getting close enough to see him in action is a thrill. So how about playing with him?

"It was like a Walter Mitty situation," Tampa's Ralph Ghioto III said. "It was certainly once in a lifetime. The reaction I got was shock. 'You must be kidding me.' He has to be the most famous person in the world."

Ghioto, 36, a member of Avila Country Club, played with Woods on Feb. 7 in the pro-am preceding the Buick Invitational in San Diego.

His Century Buick in Tampa won a dealer sales contest that included an all-expenses-paid trip and a spot in the Buick Invitational pro-am. Ghioto, however, had no idea it would include playing with Woods.

That came about due to some good fortune and Ghioto's proficiency at the game. Woods, apparently, stipulates that only 12-handicap golfers or better be allowed in his group during pro-ams (not including celebrities). Ghioto got the call because he is a 5-handicap.

He made the most of the situation. His father, Ralph Jr., caddied. And his wife took plenty of photos.

Not that he would need any to remember the day. Ghioto shot 77 on his own ball, with one birdie (on the final hole) and six bogeys.

Not bad in the company of the world's best golfer, the man who has won the past three major championships.

"For 25 years old, Tiger is a very polished young man," Ghioto said. "It's amazing considering what he's got going on. If you engaged him in conversation, he was very nice. He helped me read a couple of putts. I'm sure he has to be a little bit guarded. But as someone to play golf with, he was a gentleman.

"We had one of the guys in our group make a 2 on a par 4 and Tiger was giving him high-fives. He was mostly all business. I didn't expect him to be Mr. Slap-on-the-Back. But he was very amiable and personable."

The round began at 6:42 a.m. because Woods stipulates that he be in the first group during pro-ams, in part to limit the size of the crowd that tracks his every move. Which is one of the negatives of being Tiger.

"When he walks off a green and they make the corridor with the ropes to the next tee, it's a solid wall of people," Ghioto said. "He has to walk straight ahead. I feel sorry for him in that respect. And a lot of people just don't understand. He can't sign all those autographs. People have things to sign everywhere, and he can't sign that stuff. He can't stop or he'll never get to the next tee."

Woods couldn't hit balls before the round because of the time, but once he got going, it was an impressive display, Ghioto said.

"When we got to No. 9, a par 5, you could tell there was another gear," he said. "On every par 5, he turned up that dial a little bit. He increased his speed and didn't lose his balance (when he swung).

"There was one shot that really impressed me. It was the 12th hole, a par-3, 185. The wind was howling right in our face, and Tiger's caddie (Steve Williams) said to hit one low. Tiger hit a 4-iron and the ball never got above 5 feet. If you were standing there, it would have hit you in the chest. It never had any tendency toward rising. It was a bullet. The wind didn't affect it at all. He said, 'Is that low enough for you?' There were a few of those magic moments, those exchanges, that I was able to catch."

Ghioto had a few moments of his own, such as the drive and 5-iron he hit to the par-5 18th green. Woods hit a 7-iron second shot to the green, but it was outside of Ghioto's ball. Woods helped Ghioto line up his eagle putt, but the ball failed to drop.

Not everything could be perfect.

"We were out there for more than four hours," Ghioto said, "but it was like you snapped your fingers, and it was over."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.