- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

The AT&T; National got its dream duel.

Golf’s present and possible future will collide in Sunday’s final pairing at Congressional in the form of tournament host Tiger Woods and defending champion Anthony Kim.

“I’m already excited,” said the 24-year-old Kim, tied atop the 54-hole leader board at 10-under 200 with his 33-year-old idol. “This is a day I’ve been dreaming about for quite awhile. I told my mom and dad it would happen, and it’s finally going to happen. I’m going to go out there and enjoy it and play some great golf.”

Kim took up golf at the age of 10 after watching Woods win his second consecutive U.S. Amateur title at Newport Country Club in 1995. A basketball junkie, Kim had never considered golf before Woods “made the sport cool.” Now, the kid who grew up in Los Angeles fantasizing about swapping shots with Woods down the stretch in a major will be paired with his professional inspiration for the first time.

“You don’t get too many chances to play against the best player in the world in the final round of his tournament,” said Kim, who was almost shaking in anticipation of the showdown. “I’m spinning a little at the thought right now, but I’ll be focused come tomorrow.”

After the opening nine holes on Saturday, it seemed nobody would have a chance to catch Woods. The 14-time major champion began the day at 10 under with a one-stroke lead over Rod Pampling (8-under 202). Woods staggered out of the gate with bogeys at Nos. 1 and 6 but surged to the turn with a birdie-eagle burst at Nos. 8 and 9 to claim a three-stroke lead and put the notion of Sunday suspense in dire jeopardy.

“I had my chances,” said Woods, who eagled No. 9 via a jaw-dropping 366-yard drive, towering, 235-yard 3-iron and 25-foot putt. “I turned the round around and had it headed in the right direction with the birdie at No. 8 and eagle at No. 9. But then I threw it all back on No. 11. … It was a tough day.”

Faltering on the 489-yard 11th hole for the third consecutive day, Woods pulled his drive into the left rough, tugged his approach into the short greenside bunker, and then needed four more swipes to get down during a disastrous bunker-to-bunker double bogey on Old Blue’s toughest hole. That erratic eagle-double exchange on the 7,255-yard, par-70 layout defined an erratic third-round 70 that pulled Woods back to the scrum of Kim, 50-year-old Michael Allen (9 under), Cameron Beckman (9 under), veteran Jim Furyk (8 under), Pampling and U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover (7 under).

Woods is a remarkable 45-3 in PGA Tour events in which he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead and has closed to 14 straight wins in such position dating back to the 2004 Tour Championship (Retief Goosen). While few would bet against the world No. 1, something about Sunday’s finale feels different.

For one thing, Kim isn’t a garden-variety challenger. Sure, he might have just two PGA Tour victories on his resume in two-plus full seasons, but many insiders consider him the game’s next elite player. None of the game’s other youngsters can match his combination of sublime length off the tee and creativity and touch around the greens. Plus, Kim plays the game with a kind of temerity and pin-seeking abandon that seem almost impervious to pressure.

Asked what he expected from Woods in the long-anticipated first meeting, Kim responded: “I expect he’s going to be wearing a red shirt and he’s going to be ready to go. I’ll be ready, as well. … And I’ll probably be wearing blue. That’s my favorite color. … I’ve won this tournament before, so I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t do well again tomorrow.”

Woods was predictably calmer when it came to discussing the coming matchup.

“As we all know, AK can play, he really can,” Woods said, who admitted playing a protege makes him feel old. “He’s won not just two golf tournaments, but he’s won on great golf courses [Quail Hollow and Congressional]. As time has gone on, we’ve seen the talent. We’ve seen him grow as a player. It’s just a matter of time before he starts winning golf tournaments, because [he] just needs the experience.”

Sunday’s finale could be career-building classic in that department.

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