J. Brady McCollough
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Monday, June 16, 2008

Woods' birdie putt on No. 18 forces U.S. Open playoff

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

LA JOLLA, Calif. | Oh, to be inside that man's head.

 

Here was Tiger Woods, standing over the pressure putt of his lifetime, trying to survive another round hobbling around Torrey Pines Golf Course using his driver as a cane, hoping to do it all over again the next day.

 

If he made this putt on No. 18, he would extend this 108th U.S. Open to a Monday playoff with Rocco Mediate, who was already in the clubhouse at 1 under. If Woods missed, well, he would be in Mexico today working on a golf-course design project, and he would have given up a lead entering the final round of a major championship for the first time in 14 tries.

 

Good thing he was only thinking about the break and the bounce of the green, which Woods compared to a game of Plinko. Yes, before one of the defining shots of his amazing career, Tiger Woods had time to think about a game invented by Bob Barker.

 

"It was a little wobbly down there," Woods said. "That ground was a little bouncy. It's kind of like playing Plinko. You don't know what's going to happen. If it bounces in or out, so be it. At least I can hold my head up high and hit a pure stroke."

 

No fear. A U.S. Open course can sense trepidation, and Woods had none because he didn't let the enormity of the moment creep into his beautiful mind. He hit the putt 2 golf balls to the right of the cup, watched it go in and celebrated as if he had just won a brand new Geo Spectrum, or a dinette set, or an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hot Springs, Ark. For Woods, the price had never been more right.

 

For Mediate, who failed to win at Plinko moments earlier and settled for par at 18, it was all wrong, and he knew it would be.

 

"When Lee (Westwood) just left his (birdie putt) short," said Mediate, a 45-year-old journeyman, "I said, 'I bet you this putt has speed.' That's what he does. He doesn't care about the outcome. He doesn't care about the next one."

 

It was no shock that Mediate was the guy with the lead as Woods and Westwood both approached the 18th tee with a chance to eagle and win the championship or birdie and play again today. Mediate, despite his inability to drive the ball long all week on the 7,600-yard course, had reached 4 under on Friday and Saturday. Truly, he has looked more in command than Woods, who technically hit his low of 3 under for just one hole.

 

Woods entered Sunday right there, with a 1-shot lead over Westwood and a 2-shot advantage over Mediate. He had all the momentum after making two eagles and a chip-in birdie in the last six holes on Saturday. That he had done all of that with a sore and increasingly brittle left knee was all the more shocking.

 

The questions about Woods' knee would begin immediately on Sunday, when, for the third time, he double-bogeyed the par-4 No. 1. Woods found out why they call it Torrey Pines, hitting tree branches twice before reaching the green in four shots. In one hole, Woods had given up his lead.

 

As Woods walked to the second hole, a woman shouted, "Happy Father's Day, Tiger! Happy Father's Day!" Yes, Earl Woods would have loved to be here, watching his son try to finish off his greatest victory. But, unlike in past U.S. Opens, Tiger had his daughter Sam Alexis Woods, who will turn 1 on Wednesday, pulling for him.

 

Woods toiled through this round just as he did on Saturday. Only this time, it seemed he had run out of miracles. You knew it was a struggle when Woods had the lead at 2 under and then bogeyed the par-5 No. 13, where he had never posted a score over par before. At 15, he bogeyed again, and when his par putt barely missed, he quizzically put his hands in the air, as if to say, "What gives?"

 

Even 18 didn't go perfectly. Woods drove into a bunker and then laid up into the rough. He chose a 60-degree sand wedge for his third shot and got it close enough to have a chance.

 

Westwood had a birdie putt, too, but it missed. There would be no three-man playoff. When Woods dropped his in, the thousands of fans huddled around the 18th erupted. Tiger Woods, predictably, had done it again.

 

Woods was sparse with his words after Sunday's round. He was asked whether he has overcome more in trying to win this U.S. Open than his 13 major victories.

 

"Yeah," Woods said. "Yeah."

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