Monday, June 16, 2008
A Torrey Story: Woods' win was greatest U.S. Open ever
By Pat Forde
SAN DIEGO -- Let's start by thanking the Scots.
If they hadn't come up with the odd idea of smacking rocks with sticks more than 500 years ago, we wouldn't have golf. And if we didn't have golf, Tiger Woods probably would have become something other than the greatest athlete on the planet. And if we didn't have Woods and his special Torrey Pines guest star, Rocco Mediate, we would not have had the greatest U.S. Open ever.
And arguably the greatest golf tournament ever.
It finally ended Monday afternoon, when Mediate at last submitted to the unbreakable will of Woods. It took five rounds plus a sixth tour of the seventh hole. When Mediate pushed his par putt past the cup, we were 91 and done.
But the memories of this Torrey story will remain for decades to come. Someday, it will be talked about the way misty-eyed historians recall the 1950 and 1960 U.S. Opens, or the '86 Masters.
They'll talk about the staggering upset Mediate almost perpetrated in his bid to become the oldest Open champion. They'll talk about the back-nine drama that saw Woods go from 3 up to 1 down to all square against a 45-year-old chatterbox with a bad back who wouldn't go away. They'll talk about the successive layers of tension that just kept building as the tournament just kept going.
Ultimately, they'll talk about the tourney Tiger won on one leg. How he defied doctors orders to drag himself through four painful days on an injured left knee, then endured 19 extra holes Monday to finish the thing off. How he had to make do-or-die birdie putts on the 18th hole on successive days, with defeat staring him in the eyes. How he had two eagles and a chip-in birdie in one celestial six-hole stretch Saturday, something that just isn't done in a U.S. Open. How he nearly drained his bottomless reservoirs of mental and physical toughness to earn his 14th major title.
"I think this is probably the best ever," Woods said. "All things considered, I don't know how I ended up in this position, to be honest with you."
Then they'll talk about the lovable loser, too. They'll talk about how Mediate went from being a guy most people wouldn't recognize in the aisles at Target to a guy who had fans whistling the theme to "Rocky" as he walked the 15th fairway. How the galleries started the day cheering more for Tiger but ended it cheering more for "Roc-co!" How Mediate had the cheek to show up for the playoff wearing Tiger colors -- red and black -- and the pluck to come back from a 3-stroke deficit with eight holes to play.
"It was an honor being out there," Mediate said. "And I'm sure that I scared him. I did good today.
"I just about got him."
The golf world is full of guys who just about got Tiger. Nobody has gotten him once he has taken the lead in a major into Sunday -- but Mediate has now come closest.
Bob May pushed Tiger to the brink in the PGA at Valhalla in 2000, forcing Woods to make a birdie on the 72nd hole. Mediate did it twice, pushing Tiger to the wall before he responded with birdies putts of 12 feet on the 72nd hole and four feet on the 90th.
"It wasn't a walk in the park," Mediate said. "I didn't want it to be a walk in the park. It could have been.
"He's got me by 14 years. He's got me by a thousand yards off the tee. And I kept hanging in there, hanging in there, hanging in there.
"When he needed that drive on 18 to go about 340, he got it.
It's like I told Matt [Achatz, his caddie], 'This guy is impossible.'"
Before the round started, the impossible dream seemed to be a riveting playoff. Woods is 10-1 lifetime in playoffs and as predictably overpowering as the waves that crash unremittingly on the shore below the cliffs here.
On paper, this looked like an anticlimax, a slow-motion rout.
That's one reason why the Open's traditional 18-hole Monday playoff was ridiculed by some. It was called an anachronism by the microwave society that demands resolution of all issues much more quickly. Better, they said, to have a sudden-death playoff like the Masters or a four-hole aggregate playoff like the British Open and the PGA.
But this was the perfect way to spend a June Monday. On a dreamy California morning, the fans were treated to one more day of brilliant theater by a pair of divergent but complementary personalities.
If you sat next to Mediate on a flight from San Diego to New York, you'd probably know his life story by the time you were over Omaha, Neb. He'd be doing card tricks, telling jokes, showing you pictures from his vacation.
If you sat next to Woods on a flight -- well, forget it. He'd be on his private jet.
The thinking going into Monday was that Mediate's only chance to win this playoff was to yap Tiger to death. Talk from the first tee to the 18th green. Jabber his way into Woods' head and try to crack that formidable focus shield.
But the two are friends, and Mediate respected Tiger's need for alone time on the course. They talked some, but not much. If Rocco felt the need to converse, he talked to Achatz.
As it turned out, Mediate didn't need any psych jobs to stay in this duel. He just needed to weather some nerves, make some putts and wait for Woods to give him a chance.
With Woods at even par and Mediate 3 over after 10, that chance looked as if it would never come. But then The Closer surprisingly bogeyed Nos. 11 and 12, and Mediate even more surprisingly birdied Nos. 13, 14 and 15 to take the lead.
After matching pars on 16 and 17, it was high noon in the Torrey Pines corral. Again.
We'd all sell an organ to be inside Tiger Woods' skin at a time like that -- when the stakes are highest and you somehow perform at your best. That was Woods on the par-5 18th tee, where he crushed a drive that split the fairway and gave him a perfect shot at the green in two.
"It's pressure, there's no doubt," Woods said. "I was nervous, and that's a good thing. That means you care. You can try and use that energy as best you can to heighten your focus."
Focus fully heightened, Woods fired a 4-iron more than 200 yards over the pond and onto the green. His eagle putt rolled four feet past, then he buried that for birdie.
Unlike the explosive response after the birdie at 18 on Sunday, Woods left the fist pumping to caddie Steve Williams and instead merely lifted his cap to acknowledge the roar.
One hole later, Mediate finally cracked. His bogey at No. 7 ended the marathon test. As a golf cart took him to the trophy presentation at the 18th hole, grateful fans spilled into the seventh fairway to cheer the vanquished.
"This was probably the best week of his life," said Mediate's teary-eyed college roommate, Steve Puertas.
It wasn't far behind that for Woods, who turned painful perseverance into an art form.
"You keep playing," Woods said. "Whatever it is, you just keep going, keep going forward. All my buddies and I used to, when we were working out, used to always say 'Four.' How many more reps do you have? Four. Four-ever. And that's the idea. You just keep going, and there's no finish line, and you just keep pushing and pushing."
He kept pushing until the tourney was won, and now the apotheosis of Tiger Woods is complete. He somehow has managed to top himself, with the assistance of Mediate, in the greatest U.S. Open ever.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.