ORLANDO - Of the 15,000 fans packed around the 18th hole at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club, nobody was more relieved than Kathleen Eidsvaag when Tiger Woods' victory-clinching putt hit the hole.
"Oh, thank God," she exhaled, slumping against the shoulder of her boyfriend, Tony DeKroub. While Woods pumped his fist in triumph, the color began to return to Eidsvaag's face as DeKroub offered a gentle kiss.
How did it feel to be a hero? "Very good," she stammered. "I just hope Tiger sees it that way."
Eidsvaag and DeKroub, a couple of lovebirds from Tampa, would have gladly remained the anonymous angels who helped end Tiger's slump. But DeKroub has the welt and NBC the videotape to give them away.
"Thanks," Woods offered in his post-round press conference to the couple who helped him win by a neck over Phil Mickelson. "I got one of those Arnold Palmer breaks."
Woods' first PGA Tour victory in six months was pieced together with smoke and miracles. The smoke was Woods' "quick snipe" hook off the 18th tee that was screaming toward the cart path and the out-of-bounds beyond.
"This thing was one of those Nolan Ryan curveballs," Woods said. "If it would have hit the cart path, it would have been gone."
The miracle was DeKroub's neck, which intercepted the errant drive on one hop and kept it in play. Eidsvaag unwittingly added the magic touch when she reflexively scooped up Tiger's ball.
"No! No! No!" screamed everyone around her. She dropped it instantly and retreated to the arms of her boyfriend.
Because the ball had been touched and because of the proximity of the cart path, Woods got a free drop into the grass pressed smooth by the galleries. From there he delivered "probably the best shot I hit all week," a 5-iron from 191 yards that cuddled 15 feet above the hole. His birdie putt left Phil Mickelson one shot in arrears.
"I was very lucky to have the breaks that occurred, and I executed a couple of shots after that," he said. "I heard I smoked somebody over there and some lady picked it up. ... I caught a really good lie."
Eidsvaag, 32, and DeKroub, 30, simply got caught. Trying to vanish into the galleries that swarmed 15 deep along the 18th hole, Eidsvaag was startled by a sudden inquiry.
"Are you the woman who picked up Tiger's ball?"
"No!" she replied, a bit too quickly.
"The blimp-cam caught you on tape - white top, red skirt and gray backpack."
"Oh, God!" she blurted through trembling fingers. Then it struck her how to transfer the blame. "It hit him."
She ratted out her boyfriend, DeKroub.
"It hit me in the neck," DeKroub admitted. "It looked like it was headed (OB). I didn't see it coming. I looked down and there's the ball and a little Nike symbol. It said, 'TIGER.' "
Eidsvaag was mortified, pleading with DeKroub to shut up before reluctantly giving up her name. "I don't know what I was thinking. I didn't think."
Does she play golf? "No, obviously."
Has she attended a golf tournament before? "Only once - a practice round two years ago at the Masters."
Will she ever return? We'll never know. The couple disappeared into the masses before Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, could present them with a souvenir golf ball from the world's greatest golfer.
Woods, however, won't soon forget them. On a day when his driver found only one fairway, he figured his angels were in the rough somewhere to quash the reports of his demise as he built momentum for the Masters.
"There were so many people over there, I figured it would smoke somebody," he said. "That's what you need to have happen in order to win."
Here's to the angels from Tampa.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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