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Sunday, June 15, 2008

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Where There's A Woods, There's A Way

By Stuart Hall

San Diego — Are you kidding? Seriously?

No, really, c’mon, this is becoming too surreal.

For the third consecutive evening, Tiger Woods produced the unthinkable that left thousands around Torrey Pines South Course, and undoubtedly millions across the country in front of their televisions, with jaws agape.

Woods bumpily curved his 73rd shot 12 feet into the cup on the 72nd hole of the 108th U.S. Open on Sunday to force an 18-hole playoff on Monday with likeable underdog Rocco Mediate, who speaks for the common man.

“How much better can this get?” Mediate said. “No, I knew he would make that putt. That's what he does.”

On Friday, Woods fired a 5-under 30 on his back nine to shoot 68 and weasel his way back into contention. On Saturday, hobbling along on a rickety left knee, the 13-time major champion made a birdie and two eagles over the final six holes to take a one-stroke lead.

Never in 13 previous major victories had Woods relinquished a 54-hole lead. But that’s exactly what he faced when hitching his way to the 72nd hole, which was playing 527 yards — clearly reachable in two shots.

Woods negated that option when he hit a pull cut into the left fairway bunker. Despite a pure lie from which he would have gone for the green in a practice round, he “stuck a 9-iron in the sand and hit it straight right” into the second cut of rough.

With 101 yards to the hole, Woods chose to hit a hard 60-degree wedge, instead of the 56, thinking he could play it to the right of a hole location that was tucked just six yards in and six yards from the right edge.

“If it does [hit hard] it should land on the front and skip past and I should have a putt at it,” Woods said. “And it turned out perfect.”

As for the putt? Two and a half balls outside the right, Woods told himself, stay committed and hit a smooth and solid stroke.

“If it bounces in or out, so be it, at least I can hold my head up high and say I hit a pure stroke,” he said. “I hit it exactly where I wanted it to and it went in.”

Of course it did.

This is the U.S. Open, a major championship being aired in prime time throughout the East Coast for the first time. So who better to bring this major to the masses than the 32-year-old Woods, who relishes dramatic pressure.

“The impressive thing about Tiger is when he's not playing well, he still finds a way to get around and that is what good players do,” said Lee Westwood, who played in the final pairing with Woods and missed the playoff by a single stroke.

The thing is, though, Woods not only wasn’t playing well, but he was also doing so on a bothersome left knee that has made him grimace and grind for the past three rounds. And that just added to the legacy that appears to grow with each major.

“I’m playing against a monster tomorrow morning,” Mediate said.

There was a point Sunday when Mediate looked as if he would slay the legend.

As Woods, sitting at two under and a stroke of Mediate, was bogeying the mammoth 619-yard 13th hole — a hole which he eagled on Saturday — Mediate was making birdie at the cozy 267-yard 14th to create a flip atop the leader board. Woods then looked human on the hole, opting for a safe-play iron off the tee instead of a 3- or 5-wood, and made par.

Mediate and Woods would bogey the par-4 15th hole. Mediate parred in to keep the door ajar for Woods and Westwood.

As for Monday, Woods is 14-3 in playoffs, including 2-0 in majors. He and Mediate have been paired together five times previously, the last being in the third round of the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

Mediate is well aware of what awaits, bum left knee or not.

“That man will crawl around if he has to play,” Mediate said.

And no doubt leave us amazed once again.

Stuart Hall is a writer with the Golf Press Association whose work has appeared previously on www.usopen.com.


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