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Teeing off with Tiger

Let's face it. Golf can be boring. In fact, golf could even scream "boring!" if you didn't have to be so darn quiet all the time.

At least that's what I always thought until I began working as a standard bearer in the Presidents Cup four years ago.

Held right up Route 29 at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville (yes, you NOVA citizens, that is why it took you an extra hour to get home last weekend), the Presidents Cup pits two 12-man teams against each other in a U.S.-versus-the-World competition. Each match is worth one point, and the first team to reach 16 points is the tournament champion.

My role in all of this was small, but at least to some degree - or so I'd like to think - pivotal. I carried around a large metal sign displaying the score of my assigned group of golfers. The uniform was khaki pants, a green polo shirt and, to complete the ensemble, a mini-apron filled with plastic numbers for my sign.

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    Aside from winning me nicknames from crowd members like "sign girl," "score woman" or my favorite - "girl with the board" - my standard landed me inside the ropes for three days of up close and personal access. Without the narrow confines of a television camera limiting my view to a close-up of a golfer's stoic expression or an arcing shot of a tiny white ball zipping through the sky, this sporting event took on an excitement that TV can sometimes blot out.

    Anyone with courtside seats at a basketball game will tell you they're not paying $500 to watch the game. No, they're shelling it out to feel as much a part of the action as a fan can. And that's exactly how I felt. Only instead of paying, I was volunteering to hoist up a 15-pound metal sign for six hours a day, and instead of courtside, I was practically on the course.

    Even the dense silences that fell over the putting greens at a hole's completion assumed a new meaning. I'm sure each member of the crowd - like me - was afraid to move or breathe for fear of costing someone a win.

    My day officially began on the putting green as I took my place next to my walking scorer, who was in charge of reporting which team won each hole. We waited patiently for the marshal to introduce us to the players.

    Early Saturday afternoon The Moment I'd Been Waiting For came at last when I got to hear those seven little words every girl longs for: "Catherine, I'm Tiger. Nice to meet you." Yet for all my wishful thinking, my personal encounter with golf's demi-god was limited to a three-second handshake, and the rest of the day was strictly business.

    A wild business it was, though. Meeting Tiger was unique in itself. Meeting Tiger on a bad day was even more unusual. Despite perfectionist tendencies like minutely adjusting the crook of his elbow or the swing of his hips while waiting his turn to tee off at the fourth hole, Woods' performance was not up to par.

    His signature fist pump after a well-made birdie or eagle was relegated to only a few holes, as he missed more than a few easy putts. Hearing an angry curse escape his lips after botching a shoe-in putt on the eighth hole was understandable but still surprising.

    In between shots, rivaling the crowd's cheers after one of Woods' hard-hitting drives, was the click and snap of dozens of cameras. Woods' omnipresent press entourage, far outnumbering any other player's, thinned out at only one point: As our group tromped down the wooded path leading to the ninth tee, all media members save the NBC camera crew siphoned down an alternate route, away from the tee. The reason soon became clear, as President Bill Clinton emerged from the trees. Dressed in black from head to toe and leaning up against a tree, he was enjoying a bit of the tournament with cronies such as the club's president, Vernon Jordan.

    Yet neither a visit from the president nor the beauty of the back nine holes set against the backdrop of shimmering Lake Manassass could inspire a victory for Woods and partner Notah Begay II, who succumbed to international duo Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen that day.

    By the tournament's end on Sunday, I was nearly ready to call it quits before walking my third and final round, especially after the six hours I'd spent on the course the day before. But witnessing Davis Love III's Cup-clinching victory at the 16th green, giving the U.S. the final point they needed to win the tournament, was well worth the walk.

    Soon after, I bore the weight of my sign one final time on the way back to the clubhouse - only to pick up the international team flag two hours later. My brother, Chris, cousin, Kyle, and I donned white canvas harnesses around our necks and traded our standard -bearer status to become flag bearers in the closing ceremonies.

    At no other point in the tournament had I been so nervous. Over the past three days I had been following in the shadows of these players, always trying to make myself as unobtrusive as possible, staying out of the line of vision of both golfers and fans.

    Now, though, the three of us were front and center, leading the teams down a walkway lined with photographers and cheering fans.

    Leaving the teams to take their place on stage, Chris, Kyle and I rounded a final corner and marched back behind the crowd to turn in our flags.

    With our responsibilities behind us, we faced front to join in the thunderous applause for our victorious team.

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