Is Tiger Woods back? The question is no longer being asked, at least not in San Francisco.
Woods was in full pied piper mode at The Olympic Club on Friday, heading a human chain through the closing holes. As he led the magic three-ball, which included Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, down the 16th fairway, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, a winner on the European Tour this year, was coming towards him down the adjacent 10th. The Spaniard was walking into a human tsunami, wave upon wave of Woods devotees locked in a rolling maul, jostling for position by the ropes.
The Cabrera-Bello group, a combined 37 over par, were reduced to the status of dog walkers, a comparative irrelevance. Their chance meeting offered a snapshot into the Woods experience.
A US Open with Woods at the top of the leaderboard defaults to a two-tier event: Woods and the rest. There was, of course, some pent-up demand in the gallery. It is four years since he won his last major, three since he contended for victory. This is what they had been waiting for, a chance to share in the phenomenon that is Woods, undeniably the most charismatic figure in the game.
Whether he will ever be the player he was is in a sense irrelevant. He need only approximate to that to fire the juices of a golfing public already wedded to the legend. The colourful pageant around the packed 16th green was the golfing equivalent of a state procession, the crowds shoehorned in waiting for the king's outline to form in the distance. The sweet arc of his ball tracing around the dogleg forewarned us of his imminent arrival. And then there he was, the man in black striding purposefully towards what he expects to be a 15th major conquest.
Woods went out yesterday in the last group with his old friend Jim Furyk. Playing partner and career rival Mickelson edged into the weekend with a birdie at the last on Friday. Watson didn't make it. World No 1 Luke Donald had already packed his bags. And Woods's heir-apparent, world No 2 and defending US Open champion Rory McIlroy, was gone, too, all of them seen off by a course that demanded control and respect.
Experience has been Woods's best friend this week. He is hitting the ball cleanly, keeping mistakes to a minimum and playing without risk. He is also informed by the recent past. He knows what it is like to fight his game, to leave a major early, as he did the US PGA in Atlanta last year, an event won by a twenty-something Keegan Bradley, playing at full tilt. That was never going to be the requirement here.
"I know that it [The Olympic Club] takes a bit out of us, but so be it," Woods said. "I would much rather be there than missing cuts or just making the cut. So it's a wonderful place to be with a chance to win your nation's Open."
Woods set out in a three-way share of the lead, two clear of the field on one under par with Furyk and that other great golfing nurdler David Toms. The likes of Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion, Charl Schwartzel, last year's Masters champ, three-time major winner Padraig Harrington and world No 3 Lee Westwood lurked, all within six of his lead. There was also the threat of the teenager.
The Woods legend was created in infancy. The label attached was prodigy. The cycle continued with the appearance here of two more improbably gifted nippers.
The story of Andy Zhang, the 14-year-old, Beijing-born, Florida-honed fledgling lit up the start of the week. The squealing urgency of the call to tell him he was in the tournament, the awed practice round with Bubba, the triple-bogey start, were all part of the tapestry. He departed on Friday on 16 over par, two better than the Spanish Ryder Cup elder Miguel Angel Jimenez and 12 shots inside Brian Rowell.
By then the story has shifted three years forward to a fully developed teenage colossus called Beau. Young Hossler is 17 and has yet to drink his first coffee, something to address when he goes up to Texas State in the autumn. No self-respecting freshman would be seen walking across the quad without a Starbucks.
Hossler went from defeat by Austin Smotherman – watch out for that name – in the state final to the top of the US Open leaderboard in a matter of weeks. Had the kid from Rancho Santa Margarita High been told after losing out to Smotherman that he would be leading the 112th US Open, what might he have said? "I would probably tell them they were nuts."
We shouldn't be surprised. He has only been playing the game for nine years and this is not even his first major. Hossler missed the cut at Congressional a year ago.
He came unstitched a little here after reaching the exalted mark of two under par, closing the second round on plus three, still good enough to go out yesterday in the seventh-last group with Frenchman Raphael Jacquelin.
"I was pretty excited [topping the leaderboard], but then again I had another 40 holes at least. You got a long way to go and you can't get too wrapped up on where you're at."
Blimey, such composure. Someone age-test that boy.