The comparatively obscure Olesen, a 22-year-old second-year European Tour player from Denmark, more than held his own during a July 21 third-round pairing with Woods at the 141st British Open. Woods shot an even-par 70 over the Royal Lytham & St. Annes links and Olesen nearly matched him with 71.
"It was great," said Olesen. "I've never played in front of so many people before. So it was quite a big thing for me. I tried to enjoy it. I thought I hit a lot of good shots out there, but I could have made a few more putts. But I thought I played pretty well."
Well, indeed. Had Woods, a 74-time winner on the PGA Tour, and Olesen, who notched his first victory on the European Tour four months ago at the Sicilian Open, been competing in a Ryder Cup singles match, the Dane would have won 2-up with one hole to play. Score one for Europe.
In reality, Woods begins the final round of his 16th British Open in fourth place, five shots behind leader Adam Scott (68) and one behind Graeme McDowell (67) and Brandt Snedeker (73). Olesen, playing in his second Open Championship, is alone in seventh at 4-under-par, a shot behind Zach Johnson (66) and Ernie Els (68).
Olesen was a standout youth soccer player in Fursø, Denmark. He also took to golf at a young age, and by the time he was 12 - and showing promise in both sports - his father, Soren, told Thorbjorn he had to concentrate on one or the other. The family belonged to Vårløse Golf Club in Fursø, and when Thorbjorn won the club championship at 12, competing against adults, his choice was obvious.
"I never pressured him about it," said Soren Olesen. "He made the decision by himself."
Since then, Olesen has idolized Woods. Yet they ignored each other on the practice range and putting green before beginning their round Saturday, and introduced themselves only on the first tee. Olesen said the only time they talked during the day was when they "had a little chat down the seventh."
"I was quite nervous the first three or four holes, " said Olesen, acknowledging that it was playing with Woods, and not the electric atmosphere, that made him anxious.
Had Woods and Olesen been going head-to-head in match play, Olesen would have been 2-up after three holes, thanks to Tiger's bogeys at the first and third. Woods would have squared the match with a par at the fourth to Olesen's bogey, and a birdie at the sixth to the Dane's bogey. The match would have been even after nine holes, with Olesen winning the eighth with birdie and Woods taking the ninth with birdie.
Olesen's birdie at the 11th hole would have put him 1-up, and he wouldn't have surrendered that lead until making double-bogey at No. 14, where he hit an ill-chosen 3-wood off the tee into a fairway bunker and needed two shots to escape. Woods' bogey at the 15th would have given Olesen a 1-up lead, and he would have closed out the match with his birdie at the 17th. Their match wouldn't have reached the 18th, which Olesen bogeyed to account for his 71 to Woods' 70.
Although in one sense Olesen got the better of a 14-time major winner, he said he still learned plenty from Woods. "He had a great strategy for this course," said Olesen. "He hit a lot of irons from the tee and took all the bunkers out of play. I learned a lot from that. It was just a great experience for me."
Contrary to speculation that Olesen would spend a sleepless Friday night, he said he "went to bed quite late, but I probably got seven or eight hours in."
No doubt Olesen slept even more soundly before Round Four. After all, his pairing with Bill Haas figured to be considerably less frenetic, and he proved Saturday that he belongs in the rarified air of major championship contenders. It's not everyone who goes mano-a-mano with Tiger Woods and wins handily.
Dave Seanor is an award-winning sports writer who has covered golf for more than 20 years. He's attending his 13th British Open this year.
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