SAN DIEGO — Tiger Woods has defined his career in terms of major championship victories, and in turn they have defined him. Some wins have been monuments to his power, as when he obliterated the old Augusta National in 1997, and others have been tributes to his precision, such as the 2000 British Open, when he navigated the heaving earth of the Old Course without hitting into a single bunker. Woods has separated himself with clutch putting, as at the '06 PGA Championship when he canned a pair of 40-footers early in the final round, and he has dazzled as a tactician, taking apart Southern Hills one little swing at a time at the '07 PGA.
Woods's unique skill set was on display again at last week's U.S. Open, but this victory was more visceral. It was all heart.
Playing for the first time since arthroscopic knee surgery two months ago, Woods was sore, stiff and rusty when he arrived at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif., a 7,643-yard brute that was easily the longest track in major championship history. Over four riveting rounds and a taxing 19-hole Monday playoff, Woods didn't play the golf course so much as brawl with it, his left leg occasionally buckling mid-swing, his face often twisted into a mask of pain, audible grunts and groans escaping after so many shots. Yet this son of a Green Beret simply soldiered on. Woods snatched this Open with typically heroic flourishes, but his 14th major championship triumph was mostly about a palpable refusal to give in — to the pain, to an exacting course and to anyone trying to take a trophy that Woods considered to be rightfully his.
After four days of scrappy golf Woods came to the par-5 72nd hole on Sunday trailing Rocco Mediate by a stroke. A bad drive into a fairway bunker and a sloppy layup left him in the tangly right rough, 101 yards from a dangerous pin cut hard against a green-front pond. Woods muscled a wedge shot to within 12 feet, and our national championship was suddenly distilled into a moment thrilling in its simplicity: Make the putt or go home. One of Earl Woods's most famous quotes was actually a whisper into his son's ear at a critical juncture of a long-ago U.S. Amateur: "Let the legend grow." It grows, still. Woods buried the putt, setting up the 18-hole playoff with Mediate, a likable 45-year-old veteran with a bad back and loose lips and not the foggiest idea of what he had gotten himself into.
On Monday, Mediate battled bravely and actually outplayed Woods tee-to-green but he could not match his opponent's resourcefulness. Mediate, who rallied from a three-shot deficit with eight holes left, was at even par and one stroke ahead playing the 18th hole but for the second straight day could only make a disappointing par. When Woods summoned a textbook two-putt birdie the two moved on to sudden death. On the first extra hole Woods played two flawless shots and Mediate finally cracked, going from a fairway bunker to greenside rough en route to a fatal bogey.
Mediate has long been one of Woods's most vocal fans. When they bumped into each other following the third round, during which Tiger had made two eagles and chipped in for birdie over the closing six holes, Mediate couldn't contain himself: "Are you completely out of your mind? Jeez-o, man!" On Sunday evening, following Woods's final-hole birdie, Mediate said, "I knew he'd make that putt. That's what he does." His opinion of Woods was only elevated during the playoff. "He is so hard to beat," Mediate said when it was over. "He's unreal."
For Woods the victory was deeply satisfying on any number of levels. This is his third U.S. Open championship but first in six years, and in the annals of the tournament he now trails only four-time winners Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. With his 14 career majors Woods has crept ever closer to Nicklaus's epic total of 18, and it is mind-boggling to think that at 32 he is potentially one great calendar year away from attaining the unattainable. Then there is the Torrey story — Woods grew up about 90 miles from this celebrated municipal course and has been playing there since he was a kid and winning there since he was a teen. It is poetic that a player who was forged on the hardscrabble fairways of public courses has won his U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach, Bethpage and Torrey Pines, three layouts that are open to all.
Woods will always be most closely identified with the Masters because of the sociopolitical overtones of his breakthrough victory in 1997 and because the exquisitely manicured course allows him to display both his creativity and his power. The U.S. Open, however, is more reflective of what Woods is all about. It's a grinder's tournament, a nonstop stressfest that pushes players to the breaking point, and sometimes beyond. (On Friday, Ian Poulter, citing a wrist injury, withdrew in the middle of his round after a tantrum during which he buried a club in the ground up to its hosel and flipped off an offending piece of turf.) Woods revels in the punishment doled out by the Open, and last week he performed a kind of golfing rope-a-dope in which he was willing to absorb the shooting pain in his knee and the sting of his four double bogeys because he knew the ensuing triumph would be that much sweeter.
"It was a great battle," Woods said afterward. He was speaking of Mediate in particular, but he could have meant so much more. Asked how this one rates among all of his majors, Woods said, "I think this one is the best, just because of all the things I had to deal with."
Like Ali and Jordan, Woods doesn't simply want to win — he wants to beat you. It's personal with him, and to that point the USGA, as part of a plan to have the top players in the World Ranking on the course at the same time, helped spur Woods by matching him with Phil Mickelson and world No. 3 Adam Scott over the first two rounds, a blockbuster threesome that left everybody else in the field playing to a sound track of crickets and cheering family members. Woods needed the adrenaline provided by playing with Mickelson to make him whole because on April 17, two days after the Masters concluded, he had surgery on his left knee to repair cartilage damage (the third operation on the same knee since 1994). In the run-up to the Open, Woods was reduced mostly to chipping and putting, and during his practice rounds at Torrey he never played more than nine holes. Though he still had a noticeable limp, Woods tried to downplay his condition on the eve of the tournament, saying, "I'm good to go. I plan on being competitive. Come game time I'll be ready."
It's easy to forget, given his superstar sheen, that Woods grew up as a golf nerd. Vanity is part of what has driven him to build his body to superhero dimensions; knowing that the general public largely considers golfers to be weenies, Woods repeatedly downplayed how much his knee was bothering him. His swing coach, Hank Haney, provided a more honest assessment: "He's hurting more than anybody knows."