Former News-Dispatch sports editor Steve T. Gorches, fresh off a recent exodus to the Sunshine state, is providing a guest column after attending the PGA Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla.

The hours are a little longer and I’m still getting used to new bosses and coworkers, but you can’t beat the perks.

And I’m not just talking about the warmth, sunshine and being reunited with my wife and son after a six-month hiatus.

Thanks to working for GolfNow, across the street from the Golf Channel, I received a pair of complimentary tickets to the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge in Orlando, and got to witness the rejuvenated version of Tiger Mania up close.

I experienced the first version of it back in 2003 while covering the Western Open at Cog Hill in Lemont, Ill., for another Northwest Indiana newspaper. But that was as a reporter only four years into the profession, focused on a great golfer just six years into his run of greatness.

This time it was as a fan observing the atmosphere and crowds that are mostly rooting for Tiger’s comeback to be complete with a win or two.

It didn’t take long for my wife and I to witness the craziness.

We arrived at Bay Hill for Thursday’s first round at about 8:30 a.m., minutes after Tiger began his round on the 10th hole. We camped on the 18th, around 20 yards from the green on the left side of the fairway right in front on the ropes.

It didn’t take long for me — and a veteran volunteer standing next to me — to be proven a liar. On the long par-4, it was very unlikely a ball would come near us. But in the opening group to come through, young pro Matt Fitzpatrick was in the thick rough on our side about 120 yards back. Turns out he was lying 3 at that spot after going out of bounds off the tee.

He didn’t get clean contact and a low liner was coming right at us. I yelled to my wife, “Duck!” before the ball landed about 15 feet from us.

“Oh yeah, sure, a ball’s not coming near us,” my wife sarcastically said to me and the volunteer, who could only reply with, “Oops.”

Fitzpatrick carded a 7 on that hole. Soon after his triple-bogey putt, the first instance of Tiger Mania occurred.

Off in the distance, we heard a roar. Two minutes later the scoreboard changed and Tiger posted his second birdie of the round on No. 13.

Once he got to the 16th tee, which was visible from our location across the 18th fairway, the crowd was two deep behind us.

Two holes later when he was in the fairway, it was six or seven deep, packing the area near the grandstands and concession stand.

“Is that Tiger Woods?” a little girl not much older than 9 or 10 asked her dad.

After Tiger was done with the 18th and on his way to the first hole (half the field started their first two rounds on the back nine), the crowd dispersed and we weren’t packed in like sardines anymore.

Well, at least for an hour and a half.

That’s when we arrived at the ninth hole to wait for Tiger and his group to finish. The other two players in his threesome were Hideki Matsuyama and Jason Day, which is my wife’s favorite.

“If Jason touches my hand, I may never wash it,” she said, referring to us standing on the ropes off the ninth green where the players walk back to the scorer’s tent right next to the fans.

After Tiger drained a 71-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole — with another roar in the distance — and pars on the eighth and ninth, he actually walked by smiling ear to ear and flipped his ball to a man standing next to me.

Day didn’t reach out to slap any hands after he bogeyed the ninth.

The funniest part of the whole weekend was being in the GolfNow office during part of the weekend, answering an occasional phone call from Golf Channel support saying, “Why are you showing so much of Tiger?” or “You know he had sex with a 16-year-old, so why is he allowed to play?”

(For the record, multiple articles from the spring of 2010 say he had sex with a neighbor who was 21 at the time, but he had known her since she was 14.)

I kid you not. I even had a caller try to argue with me after he asked his version of the first question and I responded with, “Well, he is the second greatest golfer ever statistically.”

He really took offense to that, even though Tiger has won the second-most majors (14, four behind Jack Nicklaus) and second most overall tournaments (79, three behind Sam Snead). The man started bringing up names like Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones (nine and seven majors, respectively), and I apologized, saying Tiger moves the needle.

Whether it’s television ratings or crowds at a tournament or radio airtime — Tiger was one of two main topics on Orlando sports talk radio this week, next to the NCAA men’s basketball tourney, which has also been maniacal.

In the end, Tiger finished at 10-under par, tied for fifth, while another popular golfer, Rory McIlroy ran away with the title on the back nine Sunday. But Tiger did get within one shot after his 14th hole and the crowds were buzzing.

A tee shot out of bounds on the par-5 16th doomed him.

The bottom line is that Tiger is healthy and playing well and the Masters is right around the corner. Tiger Mania will not be dying down anytime soon, and my new location and occupation are perfect to witness it firsthand.

Oh, and in case you were looking for a prediction on Tiger’s season, if he stays healthy and can fix his issues with the driver — the only club he’s having noticeable trouble with — I say he wins two tournaments this year with one of them being a major.

Contact former sports editor Steve T. Gorches at sgorches@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.

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