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Monday, June 16, 2008

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Wobbly Woods Last Man Standing

Playoff Gallery 20
Good sport: Rocco Mediate, left, has a laugh with Tiger Woods even though he won't be going home with the trophy. (John Mummert/USGA)

By Stuart Hall

San Diego — For once, Tiger Woods did not know how to react.

After a week of pulsating fist pumps and painful grimaces, Woods was at a loss on how to celebrate. Having watched Rocco Mediate’s par putt miss at the 19th hole of Monday’s playoff, Woods had just won the 108th U.S. Open, his third such title.

Raise his arms? Let out a yell? He looked at caddie Steve Williams as if to ask ‘What do I do?’ And then they hugged.

Maybe that’s what a player does when enjoying their best professional moment.

“I think this is probably the best ever,” said Woods, ranking this, his 14th professional major, ahead of his 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open wins. “All things considered, don't know how I ended up in this position, to be honest with you.

“It was a long week, a lot of doubt, a lot of questions going into the week. And here we are 91 holes later.”

The hyberbole doesn't end there. The victory moved Woods ahead of Jack Nicklaus and JoAnne Gunderson and into a tie with Bob Jones for the most USGA titles ever won. Jones and Woods both have nine.

The championship reached a sudden death playoff for just the third time because of Woods, bothered by an aching left knee all week, and the dogged desire of Mediate, the No. 157th-ranked player in the world, to not quit believing he deserved to be in this position. Both were tied at even-par 71.

“Oh, my God, that was ridiculous,” said Mediate, 45, who last won on the PGA Tour in 2002. “He's hard to beat. I threw everything I had, the kitchen sink, everything right at him.”

Maybe even more headshaking was the thought that Mediate, down three strokes to Woods through 10 holes, could actually come back on Woods. Or, even better, leading by one through 17 holes and forcing Woods’ hand again on the 18th.

“I already knew that about Rocco,” the 32-year-old Woods said. “He’s not only one of the nicest guys, but people don’t realize how much of a competitor he is.”

The playoff had an almost playful start. When it came time for Mediate to draw the slip for honors, Mediate joked, “Let the No. 1 guy go.” Moments later, when starter Ron Reed announced the officials for the round, Mediate chimed, “Keep it fair, keep it fair,” borrowing a line from Rodney Dangerfield’s Al Chervic’s Caddyshack character.

When Woods, who had double bogeyed the first hole three of the four rounds in regulation, reached the fairway on his drive, he raised his arms in mock triumph. To which Mediate replied, “Now you decide to hit the first fairway.”

Playful quickly turned to business, though. Through five holes, both players were tied at one over. Woods birdied the 501-yard, par-5 sixth with a 7-foot putt and the 461-yard, par-4 seventh with an 11-footer, and led Mediate by two strokes.

After Woods, who won the last of his U.S. Open titles in 2002, bogeyed the par-3 eighth from a plugged lie in the back bunker, Mediate bogeyed the par-5 ninth when he misread a 3-foot comebacker. Mediate began the back nine by bogeying the shortish 414-yard, par-4 10th.

At that moment, the playoff appeared to be losing air. Woods stood at even par and Mediate at three over. Woods had never held such a sizable lead at any point in this championship.

“It could have been over pretty quick,” said Mediate, who was 2-0 in previous playoffs, “and then he hit that ball in the bunker (at 11). Not that I felt he was going to bogey, but it’s not the easiest shot and I hit a good shot and all of a sudden, bang, bang, bang, I pick up three, four shots and in a few holes I’m one up.”

Woods dumped his tee shot at the 192-yard par-3 11th into the front left bunker and left himself a delicate up-and-down from which he could not extricate himself. He butchered the 505-yard, par-4 12th hole for another bogey.

Mediate had picked up two shots in two holes and the crowd was imploring him to continue the comeback. “Rocco, it’s only Tiger.”

Mediate, a fun-loving, free-talking native of Greensburg, Pa., who played collegiately at Florida Southern, obliged. After they both birdied the 539-yard, par-5 13th, Mediate followed a birdie at the 269-yard, par-4 14th to tie Woods.

At the 478-yard, par-4 15th, Mediate reached in two and then some, leaving his ball 35 feet above the hole. Woods, who had sprayed his drive into the fairway bunker of the ninth hole, put his approach inside Mediate, about half the distance of Mediate.

Mediate pushed back at Woods once again, dropping a bomb of a birdie.

“Well, I just tried to let it roll down there,” Mediate said. “I had a good spot where I picked it and I rolled it right over the spot inside his coin. He does that all the time, though, so I get to do that this time and it went in.”

Woods had a different take.

“When Roc hit his putt, I was thinking that’s at least 10, 12 feet by, and it rammed in the back,” he said. “You could see him, he was shocked.”

Woods missed his birdie attempt and made a delicate 4-footer coming back to keep himself from going two strokes down with three holes remaining.

“If I miss the putt, the tournament is over,” he said.

And then it came down to the 18th — again.

On Saturday, Woods sank a 40-foot eagle putt to take the outright 54-hole lead. On Sunday, he bumped in a 12-foot birdie to force the playoff. Monday, after Mediate opened the door by having to play the 525-yarder as a three-shot hole, Woods, who was on in two, extended the day by two-putting from 40 feet.

Not since 1994 with Ernie Els, Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie had a playoff gone to sudden death. This time it began at the 461-yard, par-4 seventh, a hole that Mediate had made four pars and a bogey on, but was not comfortable.

“I’ve had trouble with it this week,” he said. “How many times did we play the hole? Six? I put it in there half the time we played it. My eye was missing on that hole.”

Especially on the 91st hole.

“It would have been better if I did that this morning, but I didn’t,” said Mediate of hitting into the left fairway bunker. His approach was an errant shot that bounded up against the left grandstand, forcing him to take a drop and chipped to 30 feet above and right of the hole.

All the while, Woods was finding the fairway, the green in regulation and leaving his birdie putt attempt just two revolutions of ending the marathon. He tapped in and walked over to the green’s right edge, alongside Williams, to watch Mediate attempt his par putt.

In a moment, it was over. Woods had won, had become the sixth player to win at least three U.S. Opens, but was at a loss.

That may have been a first.

Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.usopen.com.


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