A gritty playoff on a bum knee ... but Tiger Woods wins the 2008 U.S. Open

Tiger Woods, Torrey Pines, U.S. Open
Fred Vuich/SI
Playing for the first time in two months, Woods frequently showed signs that his left knee wasn't fully healed.

It was clear from the tournament's first hole that Woods was not his normal self, as he made a messy double bogey after a wild drive into deep rough. He took another double on 14 thanks to a bladed pitch shot and three-putted the 18th, but he held his round together with a series of unlikely par saves, shooting a one-over 72 that left him one back of Mickelson and four behind surprise co-leaders Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman. How did Woods's knee hold up? "It looked pretty good on 18 when he bombed his drive 360 yards," said Scott.

Woods found his game during the second round, which began on the 10th tee, his rally keyed by two majestic blows to set up an eagle on the 614-yard par-5 13th hole. Around the turn Woods began swinging so well that he was often picking up his tee and reholstering his driver before his ball had reached the apex of its 330-yard journey. Even as his limp grew more pronounced he put on a ball striking clinic en route to a back-nine 30 and a round of 68 that propelled him one back of leader Stuart Appleby and five ahead of the woebegone Mickelson, who shot a 74.

With all the attention trained on the Tiger and Phil show, almost no one noticed Mediate's opening rounds of 69-71. Mediate was tied with Woods and by his own admission just happy to be there. A year and a half ago he was working as a commentator for the Golf Channel as back ailments had put his playing career on hold, an all-too-familiar setback as the purity of Mediate's ball striking is matched only by the brittleness of his body. At the 2006 Masters he was tied for the lead playing the 9th hole on Sunday when his back went out, and he hobbled his way to a 10 on the par-3 12th hole. The soothing hands of a new physical therapist have helped Mediate revive his career, but he punched his ticket to Torrey only by surviving an 11-man playoff (for seven spots) in Open qualifying. At 157th in the World Ranking, Mediate knew he was out of his depth heading into the weekend. "It's going to be nerve-racking and insane the next few days," he said.

Yet on Saturday it was Woods who looked jittery as he played the first 12 holes in three over par. His round, and the tournament, turned on the 13th, though it didn't begin auspiciously, as he blew his drive miles right of the fairway. Because of the ball's close proximity to a concession stand, Woods received a free drop, and he caught a good lie in an area of rough that had been trampled by the gallery. He then ripped a five-iron to the back of the green, leaving himself a breaking 65-foot downhill putt. Two thirds of the way there the eagle putt was as good as in, and when the ball disappeared Woods uncorked one of his lustiest celebrations in recent memory.

The pyrotechnics were just beginning. On the par-4 17th his third shot from the greenside rough came out hot, took one big hop, hit a couple of feet up the flagstick and dropped in the hole. It was equal parts good aim and good luck, and Woods knew it judging by his sheepish smile. He kept the momentum going on 18 with two perfect shots, leaving himself 30 feet for another eagle. Woods has a metaphysical mastery of the moment, a singular ability to seize an opportunity that his third-round playing partner Robert Karlsson described as "freakish." Watching Woods stalk his putt, Karlsson, like everybody else, considered the outcome preordained. "No doubt," said Karlsson. "That putt was just in." And so it was.

On a day when he was fighting his swing and his knee, Woods had stolen a round of 70 that could have — should have — been a half-dozen strokes higher. Appleby had hit the same number of fairways (six) and greens (nine), and he had to birdie the last hole to break 80. Said Woods, "That's what it's all about — getting the ball in the hole."

With a much more mundane third round of 72, Mediate was two strokes off Woods's lead and a shot back of England's Lee Westwood, who was bidding to become the first European to win the Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. History was not on the side of the pursuers, as Woods was 13 for 13 in converting 54-hole leads into victory at the majors.

Yet Woods gave everybody hope on Sunday by making a mess of the 1st hole again, hitting a smother-hook off the tee and then doinking trees on his next two swings on his way to a double bogey. When Woods three-putted the 2nd hole he was suddenly two back of Mediate. Tiger steadied himself in the middle part of his round, and a pinpoint three-iron set up a birdie on the par-3 11th that put him back in the lead. But he gave it up twice with bogeys at 13 and 15.

Woods might never have had a shot at redemption had Mediate made a birdie on the 18th, but a cautious wedge doomed Rocco to a par. Westwood had a 20-footer for birdie to join the playoff, but the putt was timid. In the end only Woods could summon the necessary final-hole magic.

On Sunday, Woods sat for a press conference that featured the inevitable Father's Day question, a softball designed to elicit a gooey response about his daughter, Sam, who was born the day after last year's Open. Unabashed sentiment has defined many of Woods's majors, from the joyous hug with his dad behind the 18th green at the 1997 Masters to the torrent of tears at the 2006 British Open, a couple of months after Earl's death. Now Woods was on the verge of his bravest victory yet, a performance that laid bare his unbreakable will and phenomenal focus. So, he was asked, "Years from now when your daughter is old enough to understand, what do you want her to know about what you did this week, considering the knee?"

He could have answered in so many ways, but Woods offered only four words that perfectly captured who he is: "I got a W."

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