June 16, 2008

Tiger Overcomes Adversity at U.S Open

By Steve DiMeglio

SAN DIEGO -- With a dramatic 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, Tiger Woods sent the 108th U.S. Open into an 18-hole playoff.

On a sun-kissed Father's Day above the shores of a sparkling Pacific Ocean, Woods earned a spot against Rocco Mediate with a wedge from heavy rough 99 yards short of the green and, as Mediate paced in the scorer's tent, knocked in a right-to-left breaking putt that caught the right edge of the cup before dropping.

Woods made only three birdies in the final round and shot 2-over-par 73 and Mediate came in with a par 71 as both finished at 1-under 283 on the South Course at Torrey Pines that hugs this part of coastal California.

England's Lee Westwood, trying to become the first European to win the Open since Tony Jacklin did it in 1970 -- three years before Westwood was born -- missed an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole to finish one stroke back.

Now Woods will need to go at least 90holes to cap a dazzling return to golf after an eight-week hiatus to repair a troublesome left knee if he is to win his third U.S. Open and 14th major championship.

On a golf course he dearly loves that is playing at its nastiest, Woods got into today's playoff by overcoming a surgically repaired knee that had him wincing, grimacing, limping and doubling over all weekend. Despite therapy on the knee every night this last week, Woods often has to deal with pain after making impact.

"We'll see," Woods said when asked if his knee will hold up in the playoff. "It is what it is.

"I'm looking forward to the playoff. I've never been in this position in a U.S. Open. After I got off to the start I did today, it looked like I could play myself right out of the tournament. But I still have a chance. I kept telling myself after I started, if I shoot even par for the day, I win the tournament. And that would have been the number.

"But I'm also very fortunate to get to the playoff. Roc could have easily birdied 18 and put it out of reach for both Lee and me."

It will be the first Open playoff since Retief Goosen beat Mark Brooks at Southern Hills in 2001.

The final also guarantees that an American will win the national championship for the first time since Jim Furyk in 2003. And if Mediate wins, it would be his first victory since the 2002 Greensboro Chrysler Classic -- a drought of 138 events -- and he would become, at 45, the oldest player to win this championship.

"It's going to be a battle royale," Mediate said. "It's unbelievable that he made the putt, but I knew he'd make it. You can't ever expect him to miss an important putt."

Surprise contender

Few expected Mediate to get to a playoff. He is 0-for-43 in majors, and his career has been sidetracked so many times by a balky back that he jokes about it these days. And with his game going astray this season -- he missed the cut in eight of his first 12 tournaments -- Mediate was just trying to find his game earlier this month. He did so in the Memorial tournament, where he played the last 25 holes in 7 under par and tied for sixth.

The following day he survived an 11-man playoff in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier. With only six spots available to get to the Open, Mediate, playing against guys about half his age, made a birdie 3 on the first playoff hole and booked passage to this seaside resort.

In the final round Sunday, Mediate needed just 26 putts (compared with Woods' 30). His driving accuracy has been another strength in his improving play, but it's his outlook as he steps to the first tee today that has been his biggest asset.

At age 19 -- and after he stopped shaking -- Mediate played his hero, Arnold Palmer, for the first time and beat him by two strokes and out of $20. The two are buddies now, and Palmer has given Mediate a couple of important sponsor's exemptions to his Bay Hill tournament the last two years.

'Amazing day'

Mediate, who like Palmer grew up in western Pennsylvania, is a freewheeling, happy-go-lucky guy who might just have the mettle to survive Woods and the pressure cooker that surrounds him.

"I'm toast," Mediate said after the round. "It was the most amazing day of golf I've ever experienced. (Today) is going to be pretty amazing, too, but (Sunday) was absolutely remarkable.

"I've never been this close to winning a major, but after the second hole, I told myself that if I could just keep the ball in the fairway, you could win this thing. Especially when nobody was going crazy out there."

Things looked crazy for Woods on the first hole, when he drove his tee shot into the rough, clipped trees on his next two shots and took a double bogey. It was his third double bogey on the par-4, 448-yard first hole this week.

But with perseverance, patience and putting -- and a Saturday finish that had prime-time viewers roaring on the East Coast -- Woods is primed to win his third U.S. Open in nine years, the first two coming with his 2000 blowout win at Pebble Beach and his 2002 grinder at Bethpage Black.

Woods, who had runner-up finishes in 2005 and 2007, will have finished first or second in five of the last nine Opens, long considered the most formidable, diabolical tournament in golf. Woods, who has won six Buick Invitationals at Torrey Pines, will try to win his third career Grand Slam, a feat matched only by Jack Nicklaus.

Though there have been times Woods looked like a mere mortal at the Open, the knee hasn't proved to be his Achilles' heel. After a feeling-out first round of 72, Woods wasn't producing any wonders in his second tour of Torrey Pines until he made the turn for his inward nine on the course's front nine.

In the late afternoon of Friday the 13th, the roars started coming more frequently as the world's No.1 charged into contention with four birdies in a five-hole stretch and put a 68 on the board.

Only three times in the 108 years of the Open has a player bettered his inward 30, which included five consecutive 3s.

Delivering magic

On Saturday, Woods turned horrendous tee shots into miraculous recoveries, electrifying the galleries and sending shockwaves across the course on his final six holes.

In an astonishing stretch, Woods produced three miracles -- even by his lofty standards -- to take a one-stroke lead into the final round.

Miracle No.1 came at the par-5 13th, where Woods hit his tee shot toward the concession stands, far right of the fairway. Joking afterward that he wasn't hungry enough to get a hot dog, Woods got a free drop and rifled a 5-iron just over the green into the fringe. From there, he took a big bite out of par by holing a 70-foot putt for his second eagle of the week.

Miracle No.2 came on the par-4 17th, where Woods, nearly kneeling to hit his third shot, hit a one-bounce chip into the hole that left him smiling in embarrassment.

"The ball came out hot, it one-hops in the cup and I was just like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Woods said after the round.

Miracle No.3 came on the next hole, where Woods knocked in a 40-foot eagle putt on the treacherous putting surface of the 18th that took him from one stroke behind the leader to one stroke ahead and gave him a 70.

"All of a sudden, stuff just started happening," Woods said.

He and Mediate will try to make things happen again today.

"Roc is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet," Woods said. "He's been a friend of mine ever since I've been out here on tour. We'll talk (in the playoff). But we'll also understand we're trying to win a U.S. Open.

"And we'll have our moments where we'll go our separate ways and be focused for every shot."<>