The luckiest people in San Francisco were standing along the right edge of the 3rd-hole fairway at Harding Park on Sunday, just minding their own business, when Tiger Woods' errant drive took a couple of crazy bounces and came to rest behind their shoes.
Suddenly, these people weren't merely watching the Presidents Cup. They were in it.
Excited as they were to be following Woods, they couldn't have imagined the experience of watching Tiger in trouble. Only here -- deep in the realm of tall trees, cart paths and unwieldy rough -- does the public get a direct connection with golfing royalty, hovering an arm's length from a player's backswing and forming a human alleyway down the line of his upcoming shot.
The mood of this scene went beyond reverence. Fans were staring, gawking and smiling at Woods as if he had forged world peace. Their day had been made, three times over. There is no outward charisma to the man, not usually; he couldn't be more stoic and aloof as he conducts his business. A number of his rivals, particularly Phil Mickelson, have more intimate relations with the gallery.
But those other guys aren't Tiger Woods, the global icon, and this was a particularly special Sunday. Along with his usual resolve, Woods added a heady swirl of revenge and patriotism.
It was a Tiger we hadn't seen before, not exactly. Traditionally lackluster in the match-play format, particularly with his 10-13-2 lifetime record at the Ryder Cup, he was about to finish a 5-0 run on one of California's most storied courses. He was facing Y.E. Yang, the only man ever to take down Tiger (at this year's PGA Championship) after he held the 54-hole lead at a major.
Now these 100-odd fans were right on top of him -- almost literally. The scene was so claustrophobic, Tiger took a little walk before venturing into the humanity. There wasn't a sound until he addressed the ball, a stunning 202-yard masterpiece that landed on the green, and then there was bedlam. People high-fived each other with "can you believe that" looks, and as one man headed up the fairway, he wondered out loud, "Should we go back and grab a couple of those blades of grass?"
The likable Mr. Yang didn't have a chance this day. Neither did the eclectic group representing the International team. The U.S. needed five singles points to win and posted them before the Internationals got a sniff. Right around 1:30 p.m., Tiger clinched his match and the U.S. victory with a 9-foot birdie putt on 13. He was six holes up with five to play, and the humbled Yang had been vanquished.
"Little revenge there, Tiger?" someone asked him afterward, and he couldn't hold back a smile. "Well, he got me once," Woods said. "I figured I could get him here. It certainly wasn't the same atmosphere, but still, it was an important point. I actually played pretty good. I really putted well."
To say the least. Woods' performance was relentless, featuring mid-range birdie putts on the 8th, 9th, 11th and 13th holes. That's when Tiger's personality emerges, with the energetic fist-pumps, and the fans were glad they chose a glimpse of the Presidents Cup over an NFL Sunday.
Outside of "that's good" (conceding a putt), I'm not sure a word was exchanged between Woods and Yang all day. Quite often, they walked long stretches of fairway about 4 or 5 feet apart, but in silence. Yang is a goodhearted fellow by nature, and I had this crazy thought of him unnerving Tiger with some perfect English: "So, did you hear the one about the caddie and the ball-washer?"
No such byplay. Tiger was on his latest mission, everyone knew it, and the dominoes were falling: first Stewart Cink, then Hunter Mahan, then Anthony Kim and Sean O'Hair polishing off wins. Suddenly, it was down to Tiger -- beautiful symmetry -- although he wasn't aware of it. Even at the sight of captain Fred Couples removing his hat and gesturing like Kirk Gibson after that epic home run, Woods didn't know his putt on No. 13 had clinched the victory.
"Did it, really? I swear, I didn't know," he said. "That's perfect."
A single snapshot will linger from this event. It came on Saturday, when Tiger lined up his second shot on 18, drilled a 3-iron to within spitting distance from 229 yards, and began walking self-assuredly with one hand on the club and the other frozen in front of him, at eye level, like an orchestra conductor framing a particularly sweet moment.
Let that moment stand for a terrific week at Harding Park. Let Tiger take his place alongside Johnny Miller, Ken Venturi, Bob Rosburg and all the greats who made this course an institution. Seldom has anyone spoken so knowingly of perfection.