Woods, fans were fighting the light

ORLANDO, Fla. -- This front-row seat to history was nearly as good as it gets for someone not part of the action. A spot on a hill to the left of Bay Hill's 18th green, with only a bunker between me and Tiger Woods, provided the perfect place to witness the world's No. 1 player stalking his winning birdie putt on Sunday.

Unfortunately, this view of another memorable Woods moment was distorted by darkness. From watching the approach shots of the final threesome at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and then seeing Sean O'Hair attempt a 40-foot birdie putt with his caddie, Paul Tesori, tending the pin, I had a general idea where the cup was located -- as it always is for the final round of this tournament.

But when Woods stood over his ball, just 15 feet from the hole, I could not see the cup. Mind you, I was on sitting on a hill, looking down on the green, no more than 50 yards away. It was 7:45 p.m. ET, already a few minutes past sundown.

Television pictures of the dramatic scene made it appear as though there was plenty of light, but not so. The scoreboard across the pond was illuminated and cars parked in the grass across the way had their lights on. Flashbulbs were flickering throughout.

So this wasn't like Tiger's historic strolls to victory at the Old Course or Hoylake, where in the U.K. you could play until 10 p.m. And it wasn't like his previous wins at Bay Hill, including two other tournament-clinching victories with birdies on the final hole, as both of those putts were struck in daylight.

You might compare it to the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, where the same television network that was broadcasting the event Sunday came under severe criticism -- as did the governing body of that major, the United States Golf Association -- for starting the final round so late so that it could go into prime time. A brief weather delay almost foiled those plans, and Tiger could very well have been finishing up a second straight major victory in solitude on Monday morning.

This was different. The weather forecast was for morning thunderstorms, so PGA Tour officials decided to group the players in threesomes and send them off both tees. The rain came, as predicted, but lingered longer than expected. Tee times ended up getting pushed back nearly two hours.

And all day, it was a toss-up as to whether the tournament would conclude on time. Adding to the difficulty was the tense nature of the happenings in the final group, with Woods cutting into O'Hair's 5-stroke lead quickly, pulling within 1 shot through 10 holes, finally catching him at the 15th, taking the lead at the 16th, relinquishing it at the 17th, then coming to the 440-yard, par-4 18th tied.

The scene at this point was about as cool as it gets in golf, with the gallery ropes packed tight with spectators who by this late time in the day had plenty of time to indulge -- giving them more courage to shout various words of encouragement. One moment, there would be raucous cheering, the next complete silence as the players hit their tee shots.

All three, including Zach Johnson, hit the 18th fairway, with Woods playing last. As Woods was about to hit his 7-iron approach from 164 yards, there was some laughter that echoed across the water. Funny how a couple of people can stand out when 10,000 others are silent. Woods backed off, went through his routine, then knocked the shot on the green and spun it back to 15 feet below the hole.

Now the tension was really building. It was clear that O'Hair's birdie putt was not one you would expect to make. A two-putt for par was more certain, although a colleague remarked that it would be a shame if either player stumbled at this point simply because he could not see properly.

You might not remember Scott Hoch's victory at Doral in 2003, but it was notable because while in a playoff with Jim Furyk, Hoch told a rules official that he was having difficulty seeing. Enough said. The official determined it was too dark, and ordered the playoff to be completed in the morning. Furyk rolled his eyes at the time, insinuating there was enough daylight, and Hoch won the next day.

So Hoch had it better that evening than Woods, O'Hair and Johnson as they played the final hole at Bay Hill but elected to wait. It is possible that any one of them could have consulted a rules official and asked that play be postponed. With so much at stake, why not?

If you've ever stood over a golf ball and tried to hit in any form of darkness, it is not a simple exercise -- even though you know where the ball is. It seems like it should be easy, but it's not. Golfers playing for their livelihood would prefer not to have such circumstances determine the outcome.

But nobody complained. In fact, O'Hair described night golf as "kind of cool."

By now, tournament host Arnold Palmer was positioned atop the same hill, peering out onto the green to see if Tiger would win his tournament again. Dozens upon dozens of photographers crammed all around. The grandstands that surrounded the green were suddenly silent. Tiger examined the putt, looked at it from every angle, and when it was his turn to play, went into his usual putting routine and stood over the ball.

Then someone yelled out "playoff."

Nervous laughter followed, and Woods backed away as flashbulbs went off.

This was not the same putt Woods had to defeat Mickelson in 2001 or Bart Bryant last year here at Bay Hill. In those instances, he was above the hole, with a curling putt that broke from left to right.

This time, he was below the hole, a left to right breaker that was shorter.

"This was totally different," Woods said. "I kept telling myself, obviously with the temperature getting a little cooler, this putt is going to be a little bit slower. The putt is uphill and into the grain, left to right, make sure you hit it hard to get it up to the hole. If anything, if you make a mistake, miss it left so at least it has a chance with all the dew on the ground with the grain that it could snag and come in.

"I hit a pure putt. I hit it really solid and it held its line all the way there."

As the ball tracked toward the hole, I had no idea if it was going in or not. I couldn't tell if it was on line, too fast, too slow. Then I saw Tiger start moving to the left, and that was a clear sign that he thought it was going in.

Then the white object disappeared and bedlam ensued.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.