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Great Woods

He goes above and beyond (19 holes) in stirring Open win

After playing 91 holes over five days at Torrey Pines, Tiger Woods finally gets to play with his daughter, Sam Alexis, after edging Rocco Mediate for his third US Open title. After playing 91 holes over five days at Torrey Pines, Tiger Woods finally gets to play with his daughter, Sam Alexis, after edging Rocco Mediate for his third US Open title. (Travis Lindquist/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / June 17, 2008

SAN DIEGO - Twice in less than 24 hours he had come to the final green at Torrey Pines to face a putt he had to make to keep alive his championship hopes. Twice he had demonstrated an uncanny willpower to do what he had to do.

But on the third trip, Tiger Woods gave up. He had no more fight in him, so if Sam Alexis wanted to stay in daddy's arms, then that's the way it was going to be. He was done fighting for the day. She is days away from her first birthday, he was in possession of his third US Open trophy, so father and daughter were going to bask in the sun as they waited for the official presentation on the 18th green yesterday.

Only a short time earlier, Woods had stood on that same green with less commotion but more pressure. Having squandered a three-stroke lead through 10 holes, he was down one in this 18-hole US Open playoff with Rocco Mediate and needed to make a 4-foot putt to pull even. If it appeared to be deja vu, that's because Woods had faced a 12-foot birdie putt at the 72d hole to tie Mediate in regulation. He had succeeded in that mission to force yesterday's playoff, so as he settled in over the 4-footer, he had one thought: "Ninety holes isn't enough; we have to go one more."

That 4-footer dead-center produced matching par 71s, so onward they went for one more, to the par-4 seventh. On the 19th hole of the day and 91st of the week, this national championship came to an end. When Mediate missed the fairway to the left and the green even farther left, his bogey opened the door for Woods to win with a par, his 14th major championship immediately placed on a pedestal for even him to admire.

"Probably my greatest tournament ever," said Woods, a statement that carries weight since he is the author of record-setting victories in the Masters (1997), US Open (2000), and British Open (2000) and is the only man in history to have been in possession of all four major professional titles at the same time (2000-01).

But he might have a case, because in all of those other triumphs, he was healthy. This time he had only one leg to stand on.

OK, it may be embellishment, but it's hard to overlook the details that accompanied this victory - and we're not talking about the birdie at the 18th hole Sunday that forced the playoff or the birdie at the 18th yesterday that forced sudden death, or even the scintillating pair of eagles on his back-nine charge Saturday that vaulted him into the lead for the first time. What will forever be the backdrop to this 108th US Open is that Woods came in without having played competitively for eight weeks, that time spent recuperating from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

"I don't know what else you can say about that," said Mediate. "Nothing he does surprises me."

Perhaps not, but on the fifth day of competition at just the second US Open to be contested on a true public golf course, Mediate did surprise. Maybe not himself, but certainly the majority of those 24,000 fans who poured through the gates, expecting a Woods waltz. Instead, they saw a tango.

Even Mediate had to admit there were moments when he wondered how it was all unfolding.

"When I was three down through 10, I thought it was going to be over quick," said Mediate, who only had himself to blame. Mediate bogeyed the par-4 fifth to fall even with Woods, then watched his opponent make birdies at the par-4 sixth and seventh to go up two. They traded sloppy bogeys - Woods at the par-3 eighth, Mediate at the par-5 ninth - and they were out in 35 and 37, respectively.

When Mediate bogeyed the par-4 10th, he was 3 over par and three strokes behind. At 45, he was trying to become the oldest winner of this championship, so he had a talk with himself.

"I never quit," he said. "I was beaten down a few times, but I never quit."

Woods never expected him to.

"People don't realize how much of a competitor he is," said Woods.

"They wanted a show, they got one," said Mediate, whose five career wins are 60 fewer than what Woods has, thus feeding the David-and-Goliath theme.

Mediate came to the course dressed in a red shirt, which is known far and wide as Woods's choice of color for final rounds and if their similar outfits of red shirts and black pants attracted notice, what did so more were the bogeys Woods made at the par-3 11th and par-4 12th that drew the huge underdog within a stroke.

"I had him a little scared," said Mediate, who kept the pressure on with a 5-foot birdie putt to match Woods's at the par-5 13th. Then, at the 14th, which USGA officials set up as a drivable, 269-yard par 4, both players took aim at the green. Neither quite made it, but Mediate was in better position and made an easy birdie. When Woods missed his 10-foot try for birdie, the crowd erupted. It was all square, each player 1 over par.

"I felt like I was still in control until I missed that putt," said Woods.

Minutes later on 15, the picture changed yet again, despite what Woods called "the best shot I hit all week," a 7-iron from 170 yards out of a bunker on the ninth fairway, his position there coming courtesy of a drive slammed far off line. "Catcher called pitchout, so I hit it over there to the right," quipped Woods, whose brilliant recovery let him stare down a 20-foot birdie try. The only thing is, as Woods studied it, he also watched Mediate's 35-foot birdie track the hole with a bit of speed to it.

"I was thinking, 'That's at least 10 or 12 feet by,' " said Woods.

Mediate's putt slammed into the back of the hole, his third straight birdie moving the crowd to thunderous cheers.

"I hit my putt and it rolled 4 feet by," said Woods. "I said, 'Well, here's the tournament.' "

At 1 over, Woods trailed by a shot, and that didn't change at the par-3 16th or par-4 17th, both players making pars, so on to the 18th they went. Fresh in most minds was the fact that Woods had made his dramatic 12-foot birdie putt Sunday to tie Mediate, and a series of shots set up a similar picture.

Mediate, who missed the fairway left and landed in a bunker, laid up, and hit his approach to 20 feet, watched Woods pour a drive into the heart of the fairway and slam a 4-iron onto the putting surface from 217 yards.

After Woods rolled his first putt to 4 feet past the hole, Mediate had a chance to win.

"I told myself it's what I've waited all my life for, so don't lag it," said the 23-year PGA Tour veteran whose best previous finish in a major was a fourth at the 2001 US Open. He didn't, but he also was wide. That shifted the spotlight to Woods, but would there be pressure on a guy who seemingly wins everything he plays?

"I was nervous," said Woods. "And that's a good thing. That means you care."

Perfect with the birdie roll, Woods for the second straight day had come through on the final green when a missed putt meant he would have lost. That the 19th hole would be anticlimactic could have been predicted. The suspense ended in the time it took Mediate to pull his drive into rough and pull his approach even wider. His only hope was a 20-foot putt to save par, but he missed, which meant Woods had hit the mark yet again.

His 65th career victory was his 14th in golf's biggest championships, and he did it in his 46th start as a professional in the majors. Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 professional majors is the record Woods covets, won his 14th major in his 67th start, when he was 38. At 32, Woods is well ahead of the pace, though people will have to forgive him if he slows that a bit. He revealed Sunday night that doctors had offered him some advice - don't play golf - that he had respectfully rejected, so now he is paying the price. He confirmed that the knee was sore, and while he had been expected to play three more times in the next five weeks, that isn't going to happen.

"I think I need to shut it down for a little bit here," said Woods. "I need to take a little bit of a break."

The British Open (July 17-20) would seemingly be the one he'd like to get ready for, if he can.

But he'd think about that in future days. There was another major to savor, albeit one that took him five days and 91 holes to obtain. His wife, Elin, handed off Sam Alexis as they waited for the USGA to set up the presentation, and when Woods went to stand with the dignitaries, the child wouldn't let him give her up, at least until a pacifier did the trick.

He handled that 18th-hole assignment flawlessly, too.

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