Even as American hopes of retaining the Ryder Cup were extinguished on a glorious afternoon down by the river Usk, a great individual career might just have been rekindled. Tiger Woods, despite suffering his biggest-ever matchplay defeat on Sunday, ended up as joint-top scorer in the event with Steve Stricker, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter, and although it was the last thing on the minds of thousands of rapturous European supporters as they jigged back to the coach parks, it could be that they had been present at Tiger's competitive rebirth. His card read nine under par when his singles match against Francesco Molinari came to an end on the 15th green. Had it been boxing rather than golf, it might have been stopped sooner.
A pair of birdies had put the younger Molinari brother two up after two holes, causing no little excitement in the exuberant ranks of the small Italian press pack following him. Only one man had ever beaten Woods in Ryder Cup singles, and he was an Italian too, the Molinaris' hero and mentor, Costantino Rocca. E la story si ripete? Could history repeat itself? In the event, history was throttled before it could utter a word. Having reduced the deficit to one-down with a birdie at the sixth, Woods birdied the long ninth to make the match all-square, the start of an astonishing run of five birdies and an eagle in seven holes, giving him an emphatic 4&3 victory.
In some ways, the world No 1 could be forgiven for hoping that he never sees south Wales again. As a tyro amateur he was on the losing side in the 1995 Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl, and now the Principality has gone and done the double over him. But whatever disappointment he must feel on behalf of his team will no doubt be diminished by the knowledge that, in the intensity of matchplay competition, his swing and his putting stroke – neither of which has looked entirely reliable this year – ultimately held up to the fiercest scrutiny. With Steve Stricker he was hammered 6&5 in the second round of foursomes on Sunday, by the rampant Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, but yesterday's performance was the response of a champion. Indeed, if there was a major championship next week, it might once again be safe to wager the mortgage on him.
In truth, his round yesterday was like his entire golfing career writ small, featuring brilliance – not least, a full wedge shot holed for an eagle two on the 12th – as well as petulance, dazzling smiles as well as angry expletives, and even one shot that belonged to a 16-handicapper mucking up the midweek medal. That shot, a clumsy chip on the par-five second, yielded merely a par when he had all but reached the green, more than 600 yards from the tee, in two. After that he scarcely put a foot wrong, but then Tiger only has to put a toe wrong to give himself hell. On the 433-yard fifth he pulled a three-wood into the left-hand rough, and could not contain his frustration. "Fuck," he snapped several times, loudly enough to reach the ears of the many assembled youngsters (who will doubtless be handing in sicknotes at school today). "Trust your move," he berated himself, replaying the swing that has been tweaked for him by his new coach Sean Foley.
On the next hole he was at it again. "Don't you do that," came the self-flagellating shout as he hit his second shot, even as whatever it was that he did was propelling the ball pin-high, giving him a makeable birdie putt that was duly made. But then a man doesn't win 14 major championships without subjecting himself to the harshest examination, and inevitably he doesn't always like what he sees.
With Woods these days, of course, there is also the ever-present issue of his not-so-private private life, which the huge crowds at Celtic Manor were, for the most part, too respectful to mention. True, there was the odd chant of "Elin is a Euro," a cheeky reference to his Swedish ex-wife, and there were some ironic cheers when he was spotted hugging a couple of his team-mates' spouses once his match was over, but the Tiger-baiting could have been a great deal worse, and in fact a highly supportive tone was struck as early as last Thursday's opening ceremony – it already seems like months ago – when his name drew a much bigger ovation than that of any of his team-mates. He was manifestly moved by that reception, and repaid it not only with the quality of some of his golf, but even with some generosity of spirit, not always in plentiful supply when Tiger is a loser. As he was driven away in a buggy from the celebrations that erupted on the 17th green after Europe had won back the cup, he asked the driver to stop so that he could smilingly sign autographs. It was a classy thing to do by a man whose class as a golfer has never been in the slightest doubt, but whose class as a human-being has been questioned relentlessly and, let's be honest, perhaps rather unfairly.
As for his points tally, it thoroughly undermines the notion that he is not really a team man. He missed the 2008 Ryder Cup through injury, but he was the biggest US points scorer four years ago at the K Club, too.
Shots from heaven: five moments that took the breath away
Stewart Cink gives US the edge: Day two, 17th hole
The world No 35 showed his class with a 25ft birdie putt. It gave him and Matt Kuchar a one-up lead over Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, in a foursome that the Americans would go on to win.
Lee Westwood's 30 footer: Day three, 10th
The world No 2 produced a truly breathtaking putt of perfect precision to boost Europe's momentum and put him and Luke Donald five-up in the foursomes game against Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. They went on to win the match 6&5.
Jeff Overton's eagle on a par four: Day three, eighth
The rookie's majestic second shot from the fairway span back to find the cup and win the hole. Cue much fist-pumping and the memorable cry of "boom baby!"
Tiger Woods shocks even himself: Yesterday, 12th
The world No 1 holed his second shot from 133 yards at the 12th to go three-up. He turned to his caddie Steve Williams and exclaimed, "It went in?"
Graeme McDowell puts Europe on the brink: Yesterday, 16th
The Irishman hit a beautiful putt that tipped in at the last second to put himself two-up in the final match on the course. One hole later it was all over and Europe had won the Ryder Cup