Long before it was over, the 2009 AT&T National had become a character study of the reigning sovereign (Tiger Woods) and the man who could be king (Anthony Kim).
The former has been golf's most jaw-dropping natural talent for most of the last 15 years, the latter the most promising up-and-comer for the last 15 months.
So when Woods and golf's would-be Li'l Tiger clashed at the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C., over Fourth of July weekend, few could imagine a more compelling scenario.
Despite a surprise run by Hunter Mahan (62, 12-under), Woods prevailed, shooting a final-round 67 to edge Mahan by one stroke and Kim by four.
Sunday marked Woods's 68th career victory.
On a course softened by a month of rain, Kim fired the first 62 in the first round, which broke the course record. Woods took control with a 66 Friday morning, while Kim struggled to a 70 in the afternoon.
"I'm not out here to watch Tiger," Kim said when asked about Woods's round. "I didn't pay $30 to come out. I know he's obviously the best player in the world. We're all out here trying to beat everyone's brains out."
But while Kim said all the right things, Woods spoke louder with his clubs on Sunday. He did just enough, rolling in a 20-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole for the winning margin, and seems to be finding his form just in time for the British Open at Turnberry in two weeks.
Then again, he won two weeks before the Masters (Bay Hill) and two weeks before the U.S. Open (Memorial), and won neither of those major titles.
"Hopefully I can play like I did this week and continue to build next week," Woods said.
At the AT&T he was somewhere in between, better than so-so but not at his best, either. But it was the cast, not the golfing brilliance, that gave this tournament its sizzle.
Golf has been searching for a young player with the game and the nerve to stand toe-to-toe with Woods. The up-and-comer would need otherworldly skills, to be sure, but he would also need to thrive in the Theater of Woods, a moving and unpredictable hoard of fans and media.
Kim birdied the first hole Sunday to go to 11-under, a shot ahead of Woods, which perhaps should have come as no surprise. He craves the big stage. Kim picked up his first victory at major-worthy Quail Hollow last year, and his second at Tiger's AT&T. Then came his Ryder Cup heroics, including a decisive victory over Sergio Garcia.
The experts had plenty of explanations for Kim's subsequent dip in form, in which he all but disappeared from leaderboards. He was injured. He played too much overseas. He didn't care anymore. A better explanation, a sort of combination of the others: He's still just 23.
Woods, 33, is not one to relinquish his grasp without an epic fight, and after falling behind Sunday he reasserted himself with birdies on six and seven.
Looking like so many players who have wilted in the presence of Woods, Kim bogeyed five and whiffed a short par putt on eight. Although Woods returned the favor by missing his short birdie putt, his lead over Kim was suddenly three strokes with 10 holes remaining.
"You just go about your business," Woods said. "The great thing about golf is you just play your own game. You know, you can't physically intimidate anybody. You hit the ball long, you hit the ball short, you have the same chance to shoot a low score."
All that remained to be seen was whether Mahan, playing more than an hour ahead of the final twosome, could do enough to make Woods sweat.
Mahan's par on the par-5 16th hole, where he could not get up and down from the front collar, proved costly. "What Hunter did today was pretty impressive. I certainly didn't see that score out there," Woods said. "He went out there and put so much pressure on both AK and I. Just got to keep plodding along and hopefully maybe sneak one or two birdies coming in and get the title."
Kim signed for a final-round 71.
"I feel like I'm one of the top players in the world, I just need to go out there and take care of those careless mistakes. I made a couple early," Kim said. "I'll learn a lot from this event, and I'm taking a lot of positives away. "
By the time Kim was born, Woods had already been on national TV, twice. When Woods was 11, he had a two handicap. Kim was in diapers. And now Woods has one more win in 2009 (three) than Kim has in his career.
Both are Southern California products, FOMOMs (Friends of Mark O'Meara) and Nike guys. It came to light last week that Woods has a new shot in which he grips down on his driver to hit more than a 3-wood but less than a full drive. Kim has been playing that shot for years.
They gave a clinic last year in which Anthony Kim hit the shots and an injured Woods, savvier with a microphone, emceed. They are friends, which is odd because Woods has made it a point to befriend no one who posed a real threat to him. He seems to like Kim in spite of himself.
That's good. They might see each other again.