San Diego – The world’s best against a qualifier.
Who could have imagined that for a Monday at Torrey Pines?
Perhaps during an early-week practice round at the 2008 U.S. Open. Certainly not a day after the scheduled 72-hole finish, and certainly not between these two contestants.
As Rocco Mediate anxiously watched from the scoring area late Sunday afternoon, pacing at times, Tiger Woods pulled off the dramatic as only the world No. 1 can accomplish. He hadn’t holed a long, clutch putt for 17 holes, but when he needed to make a 12-footer for birdie, one that would decide if the U.S. Open was headed for 18 extra holes, Woods found the bottom of the 4¼-inch diameter circle to send the thousands gathered at the 18th hole into a frenzy.
Overtime at the Open. The 18-hole playoff will commence at 9 a.m. PDT and be televised in its entirety by ESPN (9-11) and NBC (11 a.m. to finish) as well as streamed on usopen.com.
Woods, who is 13-for-13 at majors when holding the 54-hole lead, struggled the entire day, but that birdie at 18 gave him a 2-over-par 73 and a 72-hole total of 1-under 283, tying him with Mediate, who finished one group ahead with an even-par 71.
It looks like a total mismatch on paper. Mediate, ranked No. 157 in the world, survived a playoff in sectional qualifying June 2 in Columbus, Ohio, just to make the field facing a man chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional majors.
This is Jack Fleck against Ben Hogan. It’s Chaminade vs. Virginia. It’s Appalachian State against Michigan.
Nobody says it can’t be done, but Mediate knows his role in the equation.
“I’m playing against a monster tomorrow,” said the heavy underdog Mediate, who at 45 years, six months, is vying to become the oldest U.S. Open champion, surpassing 1990 winner Hale Irwin (45 years, 0 months, 15 days). “But I knew he would make that putt. That’s what he does. It’s going to be unbelievable. I can’t believe I’m in this situation.”
Wearing a Peace sign on his belt buckle, Mediate started the day two strokes behind Woods. By the second hole, he owned the lead after the 32-year-old Woods double-bogeyed No. 1 for the third consecutive day and Mediate birdied No. 2. Woods would add a bogey at the second then make six consecutive pars before recording his first birdie of the day at the par-5 ninth. He would make only two more birdies coming in: a 4-footer at the par-3 11th and his 12-footer at 18 after finding the fairway bunker off the tee and then the primary rough with his second.
This is exactly the scenario the USGA wanted when it decided to keep the 18th hole as a par 5. Officials in charge of the setup hoped for some dramatics and the script played out perfectly.
“That was one of the worst parts of the green,” said Woods, who will have to test his surgically repaired left knee for one more go-around on the 7,643-yard layout. “It’s so bumpy down there. And I just kept telling myself two and half balls outside to the right, but make sure you stay committed to it, make a pure stroke and if it Plinkos in, or Plinkos out, it doesn’t matter, as long as I make a pure stroke. And I did.
“It took forever to break, but it finally snuck in there at the end.”
Mediate got into the clubhouse by posting second-nine birdies at 10 and 14. He missed a 5-foot downhill left-to-right birdie attempt at 13 and an 8-foot par putt at 15 before finishing with three consecutive pars. He, too, had a birdie putt at 18 – albeit much longer and quicker – and watched as the ball slid off to the right.
“I can’t believe I’m sitting here,” said Mediate, who at the beginning of last year was doing on-course commentating for The Golf Channel due to chronic back problems. “This week has been a total dream. Heck, I missed eight of the first 10 cuts I played this year on Tour. Seriously. So I get to come back [to the U.S. Open] next year, I get to go back to Augusta next year. I get to do all kinds of things.”
Englishman Lee Westwood, bidding to become the first European to win since Tony Jacklin in 1970, also had a chance to be a part of the first playoff in seven years. In that one, Retief Goosen bested Mark Brooks at Southern Hills.
His ball-striking went awry over the final nine holes with bogeys at 10, 12 and 13 before he drove the 14th hole, which had the tee moved up to play just 267 yards for the final round. A two-putt birdie got him back to even par for the championship, but he couldn’t make up any more ground. His last 25-foot downhill birdie try at 18 slid to the right, finishing with his first over-par round of the week (73).
“It’s sickening to not be in the playoff tomorrow,” said the 35-year-old Westwood, an 18-time winner on the European Tour and five-time Ryder Cupper who is still seeking a first major. “I think that I’ve proved to myself and a few others that I think there is a major championship in me.”
That leaves Mediate and Woods as the final two men standing. History would favor Woods, but Fleck did stun Hogan in 1955 at another West Coast venue – The Olympic Club – to deny the latter a record fifth Open title. Coincidentally, Fleck paid a visit to Torrey Pines earlier this week.
And, of course, there is the ultimate underdog of Francis Ouimet, who beat English stalwarts Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at The Country Club in 1913.
If Woods wins, it will be his third U.S. Open title and ninth USGA championship, tying him with Bob Jones for the most at nine. He also would be just four major victories behind Nicklaus. Woods has never been in an 18-hole playoff, but he did beat former southern California junior rival Bob May in a three-hole playoff to win the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, and Chris DiMarco in a one-hole, sudden death playoff for the 2005 Masters. Of his six amateur USGA titles, two went extra holes (1993 U.S. Junior and ’96 U.S. Amateur).
“I would rather go right now, but that’s just me,” said Woods when asked if he likes the 18-hole playoff versus sudden death or a multi-hole format used at the PGA Championship and British Open. “But hey, it is what it is. I’ll be ready tomorrow [morning].”
The affable Mediate had planned to be in Toronto for a corporate outing on Tuesday. Those plans now will have to be scrapped. Ditto for those fans, volunteers and media members who planned on departing southern California Monday.
Mediate hopes the new fans he acquired this week will be back on Monday.
“Well, I’m going to need their support,” said the Naples, Fla., resident. “I might put something like a Metallica or AC/DC [logo on my belt] to get all nasty and mean. No, it’s going to be a blast.
“[Winning this title] would be the story of my life.”
Rocco could then change his name to Rocky.
David Shefter is a USGA New Media staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.