Vastly different paths intersect at Pebble
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The symmetry of the moment wasn't lost on Charlie Wi, who grew up playing against Tiger Woods, was quickly overshadowed by Woods and now, years and years later, leads Woods by four strokes entering the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
So here Wi was, sitting at the front of the interview room, when someone asked if he had talked to Woods a night earlier.
"He's back there!" Wi said.
"Hi," said Woods, who stood near the corner of the room and sipped on a bottle of soda as Wi finished up.
"Tiger, I was telling them the story about when I played with you when I was 13 at Eldorado, on No. 9," Wi said. "Remember, it's a long par 3?"
"A long par 3, yep," Woods said.
"And I told them that when he was 9, he wasn't hitting it very far, and he hit, like, a 70-yard wedge shot and you almost holed it out and he got all pissed off," Wi said. "And I said, 'What's wrong?' He goes, 'I was trying to make that.' I just told that story."
Nearly everyone in the room turned and looked at Tiger. A moment of silence and then ...
"I forgot," Woods said.
They won't forget what happens here Sunday.
The 40-year-old Wi could win his first PGA Tour event. Woods could win his 72nd -- but only his first since 2009, when the longest victory drought of his career began.
Go figure. Twenty-seven years after they played at Eldorado Country Club in Long Beach, Calif., Wi and Woods find themselves at Pebble Beach. Both are in search of the same things: a much-craved win and, in many ways, redemption.
"But I'm sure I'll be fighting my demons all day tomorrow," Wi said. "And it's how I handle myself [Sunday]; it's not what other players are doing. It's how I handle myself [that] is going to be the outcome of the tournament."
Demons. Wi and Woods each have their share.
Wi, ranked 175th in the world, is 0-for-tour career. He had the 54-hole lead at Colonial last year and lost. It was his only top-10 finish of the season.
He's never been invited to the Masters or qualified for the Open Championship. He missed the cut in the only U.S. Open he played. In four PGA Championship starts, three of them ended Missed Cut, Missed Cut and T-56. He hasn't won a thing since the Maybank Malaysian Open in 2006.
"I have a lot more pressure on me than he does," Wi said.
Wi and Woods were introduced to the game of golf by their fathers. They grew up in California (Wi's family moved from South Korea to the States when he was 10). They played junior golf and later attended competing Pac-10 schools (Cal for Wi, Stanford for Woods). Wi even beat Woods in a college match.
"That was a long time ago," Wi said. "Irrelevant."
The comparisons also ended a long time ago. Woods became a transcendent world sports figure. Wi became a trivia question, even a beneficiary of Woods' overpowering impact on the game and the tour.
"He drives the tour," Wi said. "I don't know if you guys want to hear that, but ... it's very important for him to be competing and being near the lead all the time. Because that drives viewers and that's what helps us with our retirement fund."
Wi doesn't drive viewership. Nobody, other than the Wi family, puts their heads on their pillows hoping that Charlie is atop the leaderboard. But there he is, three strokes ahead of Ken Duke, four ahead of Tiger and six ahead of the likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan.
But don't kid yourself: Wi and Woods will each feel different types of pressure Sunday. Wi, for what he has never had: a tour win. Woods, for what he desperately wants again: a tour win.
Wi openly rooted for a final-round pairing with Woods, but it didn't happen. Instead, Wi and Duke (another guy without a tour win) will play together, and just in front of them will be Woods and Mickelson -- and the massive galleries that will move across Pebble Beach's 18 holes like a cattle drive. If Tiger and Phil crank it up, the roars will be heard all the way to San Jose.
Woods shot a 5-under-par 67 at Pebble on Saturday, while Wi shot a 3-under-par 69 at nearby Spyglass Hill. Wi didn't have a clue what Tiger was doing ("No scoreboards," Wi said.), but Tiger knew what was happening at Spyglass.
"Every time I looked up at the board, he got off to a quick start," Woods said. "I needed to at least close the gap so I'm within touch [Sunday]. I figured I had to shoot a good one [Saturday]."
He shot a good one, but not a great one. His swing was a little off, but his putting stroke compensated for some of the shaky moments. Just so you know, he had an appointment with the driving range after his third round.
Woods has slept on the 54-hole lead 64 times during his pro career. Wi has slept on one. Two, counting Saturday night.
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"And I'm sure I won't sleep as well as if I'm in 50th place," Wi said.
Compared to Wi, Woods sounded like he barely had a pulse. Nervous? More excited than nervous. Sure, he won a non-tour tournament in December, but this is different. This is a full field. It's his rival Mickelson in the same group. It's Pebble.
Before he headed to the range, Woods tried once more to recall that 1985 match against Wi at Eldorado -- and the 70-yard wedge shot that just missed.
"I don't remember it, but it sounds like a good story," he said. "For my version, I think it went in."
Then he smiled. It was the smile of someone who likes his chances.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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