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Monday, June 16, 2008

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Competitors On The Course

By Alex Davidson

San Diego – Tiger Woods considers Rocco Mediate a friend. But on Monday morning at Torrey Pines Golf Course, he is one more obstacle on the road to his 14th major championship and third U.S. Open.

“He's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet,” Woods said of his opponent in Monday’s 18-hole playoff at the 108th U.S. Open. “He's been a friend of mine ever since I've been out here on Tour. We'll talk. But we'll also understand we're try to win a U.S. Open. And we'll have our moments where we'll go our separate ways and be focused for each and every shot.”

You can bet on that.

Mediate, 45, can’t help but think himself fortunate to be in this position, given his struggles with back injuries and his record in majors. He can’t help but be impressed by Woods. Who isn’t? He can’t help but think that this is all a dream.

But so close to his first major, he isn’t backing down. Considering that he has hit as many greens as Woods (46) and struck the same number of putts (115), Mediate actually has to feel good about what he’s done so far. After all, despite Woods’ surgically repaired and still sore knee, he’s averaging nearly 40 more yards off the tee than Mediate.

But there they are at 1 under 283 after Mediate shot even-par 71 and Woods 73 – on a course on which Woods has won six pro titles and seven tournaments overall (including a Junior World). Mediate pushed him to the limit, forcing Woods to make one last key shot. Of course, he came through. But Mediate wasn’t disappointed.

At least not that he would let on.

“To go up against the best player in the world and have a chance to beat him, there's nothing else you can ask for, period,” said Mediate, who actually has beaten Woods head to head, in 1999, at the FBR Open.

The way Mediate has talked this week, his demeanor, it suggests that the playoff will be a Tiger against a stuffed bear. But Mediate is a competitor, too. Very much so. And he’s feeling the clock ticking, so he’s more dangerous than he lets on.

“Of course I want to win. Of course I do. I wanted to win [Sunday] and I thought I had a pretty good shot at it. And I made him do something today and he did it, which is amazing.”

Now, perhaps, it’s Mediate’s turn.

He’ll be the nice guy he is, talk Woods' ears off, and play to the crowd.

He’ll smile.

And he won’t likely back down.

Woods is expecting no less. “He's played well in U.S. Opens before, and he hits that nice little draw out there and it's good to see him healthy again,” Woods said. “I know this is one of the very few times that ‑‑ last year he wasn't in the situation where he could play. Now he's healthy enough to play pain free, and he's got all the talent in the world. Now he's shown us.”

But he wants to show a bit more. And have something to show for it – the national title, the oldest to win it, the highest ranked player to ever win it since the Official World Golf Ranking was created in 1986, when Woods was 11 and Mediate was a PGA Tour rookie with dreams.

Oh, yes, he wants it.

“The competitiveness, of course I'm going to try to win,” Mediate said. “He wants to kill me. I want to kill him. That's just how it is. But it's going to be a very entertaining day, I can assure you of that.”

Alex Davidson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.usopen.com.


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