By Jessica Shambora
I'm always glad to see the weekend, but it's unlikely that this one will top the adventure I had last weekend in Asheville, N.C.
As someone who grew up with two seasons -- "summer" and "not summer" -- I was totally unprepared for the glowing red and orange hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville surprised me too. An outdoorsy, hippie enclave, it seems like the Southern counterpart to Bozeman, Mont., where I once lived. Vegetarian restaurants, Tibetan prayer flags, and artists' galleries populate the town center.
The reason for my journey south: I was interviewing Tiger Woods. Given that I've played golf since I was eight, had been the only girl on my Palo Alto High School golf team, and recently left a post at Travel+Leisure Golf, this was a big deal. I never imagined that my new job as a business reporter would, in a span of a couple of weeks, bring me face-to-face with LPGA great Annika Sorenstam and Tiger.
I wrote about Sorenstam in the last issue of Fortune, but now my eye was on Tiger. He has chosen a ridge 25 minutes west of Asheville for his first North American course design, the centerpiece of a tony development called the Cliffs at High Carolina. The holes are already taking shape and land has been cleared. Some 30 homes were bought, dismantled and donated piecemeal to Habitat for Humanity. Aboard a helicopter, I got a birds-eye view.
What a ride. My fellow passengers were two couples from Houston, both prospective Cliffs members. They were also Tiger fanatics. "Did you bring Tiger in today?" they eagerly asked our pilot. "Where did he sit?" The pilot pointed my way. And the women glared at me with envy. "You lucky girl," one remarked, adding that she wondered how much my seat might fetch on eBay.
The fanaticism continued. Up at the big white tent set up for the "press conference" with Tiger and Cliffs owner Jim Anthony, crazed homebuyers elbowed their way to the front. When Woods finally appeared, they hung on every word and seemed smitten with his proficient use of the term "ya'll." The Cliffs sold out of the first batch of 50 lots that day -- $40 million in sales. Anyone in the South with any money left, I figured, must have been in western North Carolina that day.
I was happy to escape the madding crowd. I headed west to the Cliffs at Walnut Cove, another development, to interview Tiger. Asheville's tangled web of highways, byways and parkways practically undid me. (I missed a turn and arrived with minutes to spare). And then I waited in an austere wood-paneled room, psychologically preparing for my 10 minutes with Tiger, as an athlete might prepare for a world-class competition. In the hall I heard a quiet rumbling. Tiger, accompanied by a small entourage, appeared and shook my hand firmly. "Hi Jessica, I'm Tiger." When you're Tiger Woods, do you have to introduce yourself, ever again, in your whole life? He seemed so familiar to me, like we had met many times before.
I tried to get my head around the magnitude of the experience. But it was difficult. I couldn't shake the sense that Tiger's personal communications chief was standing behind me with a timer. I was like a contestant on a game show.
"Tiger, has your injury allowed you to devote more time than planned to this project?" (4 minutes left!)
"Are you concerned about the decline of golf in the U.S.?" (2 minutes left!)
"How to you plan to help reverse this trend?" (17 seconds!)
Perhaps more than any other athlete, he has mastered the ability to excel under pressure. There I was, being tested to do the same. As a journalist, at least, I played my round with Tiger Woods.