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Sunday, June 15, 2008

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Nobody Could Topple Tiger

D.J. Trahan Dejection
D.J. Trahan challenged the third-round leaders, but in the end a late bogey on No. 17 squashed any realistic hopes. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)
By Thomas Hackett

San Diego – As the leaders made the turn for the final round of the 108th United States Open Sunday, fans and the media alike were having a hard time discerning a clear narrative for the championship. And at the end of the day, you understood why: the drama wouldn’t be resolved for another day.

The overnight storyline was clear, of course: after an erratically thrilling third round on a bum knee, Tiger Woods seemed poised to nab his 14th and perhaps most inspiring major.

But the script doctors appeared to have their work cut out for them after Woods once again made a disaster of the first hole, double-bogeying it for the third time. Dropping another stroke on the par-four second hole, Woods had turned the lead over to the unlikely but irrepressible journeyman, Rocco Mediate, a five-time winner on the PGA tour.

But even if the affable Mediate has long been a crowd favorite, he probably was not first on anyone’s list of players primed to give Woods the head-to-head challenge the world of golf has been waiting for.

For one thing, at 45, he would be the oldest Open winner. For another, he just didn’t seem the steely kind of guy who won majors. He seemed too ordinary, too easy going. Currently ranked 126th on the PGA Tour money list, he’d come into the Open having made the cut in only half the tournaments he’d entered in 2008. A winner of only four PGA events (his last was six years ago, at the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic), he has never been a member of the Ryder or Presidents Cup teams.

“Once again,” he said to the media after tying Woods at one under par for the championship, forcing an 18-hole playoff Monday at 9 a.m. “I bet you’re surprised to see me here again.”

True that.

The guys in the media tent had their money on one of the overseas players to challenge Woods. Lee Westwood seemed the likeliest candidate. Starting the day at two under and paired with Woods, the Englishman had been playing the best, steadiest golf of the championship. If he lacked Woods flashes of brilliance, he also eschewed his frequent blunders, leading the field in pars with 54 for the championship.

As he and Woods made the turn, Westwood enjoyed a one-shot lead. After bogeying No. 10, Woods and Mediate were now in a three-way tie. But then he went and hooked a 3-wood into the hazard and lost his ball on the 615-yard par-5 13th, putting himself two back of the leaders.

Despite bouncing back with a birdie on No. 14, Westwood’s steady-as-it-goes play would not be enough to catch Mediate on the closing holes. Like Woods, he would need to sink a dicey birdie putt on No. 18 to force a playoff. Unlike Woods, he didn’t make it.

“It’s sickening not to be in the playoff tomorrow,” he said afterward. “I was aware that I had the lead after nine or 10, I guess. But a lot of strange things happen in the last few hole of major championships, as they did today.”

The likelihood of greater strangeness seemed to auger well for the Australian Geoff Ogilvy, the last man standing amid multiple meltdowns two years ago at Winged Foot. But the 2006 Open winner, who would get to within one shot of the lead by the seventh hole, had his own collapse Sunday, snapping at his caddy after missing an easy three-footer on no. 16 and nearly hooking the ball into the canyon on no. 17.

So it went for much of the leader board. Nobody seemed inclined to challenge Woods. Two-time Open champion Ernie Els appeared to have a shot – until he triple-bogeyed No. 15. The few players to step up and turn in below-par final rounds – e.g., Carl Pettersson (68), Eric Axley (69), Stewart Cink (67), Retief Goosen (67), and Heath Slocum (65, the lowest round in a U.S. Open since 2003) – had started the day too far back of the leaders to become any kind of factor Sunday.

And so it will be left to the unlikeliest challenger to reckon with Woods Monday.

“Mr. Woods, Mr. Woods,” Mediate had shouted from amid the media scrum after Tiger’s sensational Saturday round. “I have a question for you. Are you out of your mind?”

Now the question is, is Mediate out of his, going toe-to-toe with Tiger?

“Sometimes you got to be careful what you wish for, I guess,” he said Sunday.
Thomas Hackett is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.usopen.com.

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