Written by: Kyle Harris
This year is the 20th anniversary of Mark McGwire breaking Roger Maris’ home run record, smashing 70 dingers in the 1998 season. The excitement that began to build in spring training of 98’, snowballing as the season went on, was immeasurable.
Each morning I’d wake up and run to grab the sports page to see if ‘Big Mac’ cranked another one the night before. I couldn’t stay up for the entire game, as bedtime for a fifth-grader was usually before most games were finished. When the Cardinals had a day game during the week, we would pause class to watch all of Mark’s at-bats. If Mark hit a homer, the class would erupt. Anything else and we jeered – we were greedy little brats. My teacher would mute the TV and ask that we all turn back towards the front of class. If anyone tried to catch a glimpse of the game while Mark wasn’t at the plate we would be reprimanded.
On September 7, 1998, I was lucky enough to be at Busch Stadium for home-run No. 61 for McGwire. My father, brother, sister, and I all cozied up in the 12th row behind the Birds dugout. The excitement in the city of St. Louis and across the baseball world was incomparable. You could feel it in the air. If you weren’t at the game, you were glued to the television set. It was all the sports world was buzzing about.
When Mark was announced for his first at-bat, the stadium erupted. The moment that every fan in attendance had hoped to see upon entering the gates did not take long.
On a first-inning fastball from Cubs pitcher Mike Morgan, McGwire launched the ball over the wall in left field. Pandemonium ensued. As Mark approached first base he had both hands in the air, as he rounded the bag he gave a big fist bump and high fived Cubs first baseman Mark Grace. Standing next to my father on the stadium seat, trying to get a glimpse, I was numb. Did I just witness that? After the game, while walking out of the stadium the St. Louis Post-Dispatch already had the special edition papers printed which had the big, red number “61” with a picture of McGwire approaching first base with both hands in the air. Directly in line with his right clutched fist was my dad, brother, and me. My sister was too short to be seen. My father yelled to go grab as many as I could. It became a keep sake and a moment we will never forget.
Flash forward to this past Sunday at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis for the 100th PGA Championship. Tiger was wearing his famous red shirt. He’s back, and in the hunt.
The course was buzzing with excitement, much like Busch Stadium in September of 1998, where you could feel the angst building amongst the crowd. Not a regular crowd for a golf tournament. The largest crowd to ever attend a PGA event, all of whom were on the edge of their seat.
My father and I got to the course early around 8:00 am. Throughout the week we volunteered at the tournament in the Championship Shop. During our non-work days, we were able to treat our working credentials as a general admission ticket to watch golf. As Tiger continued to play well over the weekend, our watching golf turned into recon. Where do we want to be on Sunday if this really happens? After scoping out the entire course we decided on the 18th green. There was a video board right behind us and we knew we could turn around to watch highlights from throughout the day. As the day carried on, our plan slowly came to fruition. Tiger was climbing the leaderboard. The crowd began to compile alongside us. My dad and I were the closest fans outside the gate to the flagstick. With the video board behind us the 18th green became the largest watch party I’ve ever been a part of. We could hear a loud roar in the distance from holes 2, 3, 8, and 9. The frenzy and cheering were getting closer. We could sense it.
The anticipation was building. On 12, he birdies. 13, birdie. 14, bogie, and we are holding our breath. Next, he sends a pin seeker to 15 for birdie. He won’t throw in the towel. The golf course erupts, and the cheering is getting closer and closer. Each roar in the distance was our queue to turn around and look for the highlight on the video board. We waited in silence to see each highlight. When the shot was shown, we erupted, giving high fives as if ‘Big Mac’ just cranked another one. Other golfers approached the 18th green confused. They began laughing when they realized what was happening.
As Tiger approached the 18th-hole, the crowd was delirious. Granted, we knew his chances at winning his 15th major was all but dead after his drive off No. 17 and Koepka’s birdie on No. 16. There was a sense of nostalgia – a glimpse of what golf was like for Tiger in the early 2000s. It was as if we traveled back in time. When Tiger stuck his approach at 12-feet from the hole, I was nervous. We had waited all day at 18 to see Tiger win this tourney. From 11:00 am on I saw only one golfer sink a putt over eight feet on this green. I had doubt that Tiger would make this putt. All our time spent waiting, Tiger’s effort throughout the entire tourney was out the door. Had it come to this?
As he approached, thousands of cell phones were capturing the moment. I looked to my left and my father was snapping pictures. I looked to my right and my friend was recording a video. The workers and police officers just inside the fence all had their phones out capturing the moment. Fans were yelling at camera crews to take a knee and to move their tri-pods. Everyone wanted to see Tiger. We knew he wouldn’t win, but no one cared. It’s Tiger and he’s back! I remember making a conscious decision not to take my phone out. I wanted to bask in this moment. When Tiger finally made it to the green the announcer says, “From Jupiter, Florida, 4-time PGA Champion, Tiger Woods.” Standing closest to the announcer, I couldn’t hear him as everyone was getting louder in each step that Tiger took towards the green. The announcers mouth was moving, but nothing was coming out. It was Beatles mania, the Tiger effect. As Tiger lined-up his putt, everyone was quiet.
He sunk it.
Standing on the gate to get an extra 4 inches of height, I was numb, speechless. Tiger drilled the 12- footer and gave his famous enthusiastic fist pump. Pandemonium ensued as if he had just won his 5th PGA Championship. He smiled and waved his putter to the crowd saluting all who was watching.
After Brooks Koepka sealed his victory on No. 18, we gathered our things and made our way to the shuttles. While walking towards the volunteer exit my father showed me a photo that he snapped. I was in awe. Mid-fist pump of Tiger, it captured everything that was on that hot and humid day at Bellerive. It was full of emotions, it was legendary, and it was unforgettable. It made the 10 hours of waiting on the 18th green worth it. It made everything worth it. Another chapter for Tiger and another chapter in the great sports history of St. Louis.
Now that the dust has settled from the weekend, I struggled to compare what Sunday was like. I keep wanting to go back to that moment at 18. Looking through pictures and videos I can’t help but think of that home-run McGwire smashed in September of ’98. The anticipation, the excitement, the pandemonium that ensued in both instances was comparable. When Tiger finally wins his 15th major, those who were not there will not remember this second-place finish and his fist pump on the 18th green. Much like no-one remembers McGwire’s fist pump after 61, or even 62. The golf world will forget this notable day just like baseball tries to forget McGwire’s record-breaking season.
But, my father and I will always remember these moments and the jubilation it brought. That is all that matters. Tiger Woods, Mark McGwire, St. Louis, and fist pumps.
Thank you, PGA. Thank you, St. Louis. Thank you, Tiger Woods.
Congrats Brooks Koepka!