J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Woods beats Mediate in sudden death at U.S. Open

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

LA JOLLA, Calif. | Two heroes walked to the 18th tee on Monday with one basic fact separating them, placing them in entirely different universes. One had nothing to lose, and the other had everything to lose.

 

Apparently, it's easier to root for the one with nothing to lose. Somewhere between the first and last hole of this U.S. Open playoff, Rocco Mediate, the 158th-ranked player in the world, became the people's champion. Mediate, 45, would be the oldest player to win the Open. He wore a peace sign on his belt and a constant smile on his face. Mediate got to listen on the back nine as the crowd chanted his name.

 

"Do you believe in miracles, Rocco?" a man yelled as Mediate headed to No. 16 with a 1-shot lead.

 

Tiger Woods didn't believe in miracles. Until this week, he never had to. His doctor had told him that he shouldn't play in this 108th U.S. Open for fear of worsening the condition of his left knee, yet here he was, about to tee off on his 90th hole in five days. Like the two previous rounds, Woods trailed by 1 at 18.

 

This par-5 was made for Tiger, and Mediate knew it. Woods unleashed his drive, splitting the fairway at about 340 yards. Mediate tried to play catch-up the rest of the hole, but his slingshot simply can't reach the green in 2. The result was inevitable, a Woods birdie and a Mediate par. The playoff would go to a playoff.

 

This time, it would be sudden death, starting at the par-4 seventh hole. Woods tapped in for par, and Mediate missed his long par putt. It took 91 holes, the second most in U.S. Open history, but Tiger Woods had won his third Open and 14th major at who-knows-what-percent health.

 

"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."

 

No one will ever know how much Tiger Woods risked to win this U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course, an hour from his childhood home of Cypress, Calif.

 

Woods, of course, didn't risk fame and fortune. But it's quite possible that, by refusing to follow doctor's orders, Woods risked something more dear to his heart: his long-term pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' 18 major championships and his ability to play the game he loves at the highest level. There is little doubt at this point that Woods covets Nicklaus' record. Now, no matter the cost, he is one closer.

 

"Only being four back," Woods said, "it's hard to believe I'm in this situation, you know? It's hard to believe I've had this nice a run in my career. And hopefully it will continue."

 

Torrey Pines might have been the only course Woods could have mastered in his condition. He has now won seven professional events here. It was the first regulation 18-hole course Tiger ever played. He was 10.

 

"My dad treated me," Woods said. "He said, 'OK, you're 10, now you're a big boy. You can play a real golf course. Where do you want to play?' I said, 'Torrey Pines South.' Everything was a driver, 3-wood, 3-wood, 3-wood. About like I was this week, actually."

 

Woods was kidding kind of. Monday's round was just as up-and-down as the first four. He shot even par through nine holes and took a 2-shot lead into the back nine. At that point, Woods' coronation seemed a foregone conclusion. But Woods bogeyed 11 and 12, holding the door open for Old Man Mediate like a true gentleman. Mediate birdied 13 along with Woods, and then birdied 14 to bring them even at 1 over.

 

The scene at 15 was colossal. Reggie Jackson, Mr. October, was there watching. Chants of "Let's-go-Roc-co!" began. One man yelled, "The Mediator is in town!" Woods sent his drive way right, into the gallery. Turned out, his ball landed in a sand trap on the ninth hole. Mediate was already on the green in 2, in command of the hole. Then, what do you know, Woods drilled a shot from a bunker on another holeonto the green, closer to the cup than Mediate.

 

Already on the green waiting, Mediate shook his head at Woods in disbelief. After several attempts by Mediate to garner a reaction from Tiger, Woods finally obliged with a bit of a smile. Mediate putted first, and he flipped the script on Woods, sinking a 35-foot birdie putt. Mediate smirked at Tiger, as if to say, "I guess I can do that, too!"

 

"He does that all the time," Mediate said.

 

Tiger was down by 1 and couldn't get it back at 16 or 17. It would come down to 18 again.

 

"It's pressure," Woods said. "There's no doubt. I was nervous, and that's a good thing. That means you care."

 

When asked whether any of his 13 other major titles compared with this one, Woods mentioned his first one, the 1997 Masters. The two championships couldn't have been more different.

 

The first one, Woods shot 18 under and won by 12 strokes. He was 21 years old, and he shared his victory with his father, Earl Woods, on the 18th green.

 

This one, Tiger shot 1 under for 91 holes and won by the skin of his teeth. He's 32 years old, with a bum left knee that could eventually get worse, and he shared his victory with his wife, Elin, and his 1-year-old daughter, Sam Alexis, on the 18th green.

 

With the future of his golf career in question more than ever before, Tiger Woods lived in the present Monday. And he walked away with quite a story to tell Sam one day.

 

"It's unreal," Woods said. "I understand why my dad was so emotional in 2002 when I won (the U.S. Open) and I brought it back to him. I understand now, now that I am a father, how he felt. To have my daughter there and to have Elin there, it means so much more when you do it."

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