Woods forces playoff with last-gasp birdie, will play Mediate on Monday

Woods made a 12-foot putt on 18 to force a playoff.
Robert Beck/SI

SAN DIEGO — It was a case of mind over meniscus.

Wincing in pain while playing on his surgically repaired left knee, and fighting every facet of his game Sunday, Tiger Woods made a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole to force a Monday playoff with Rocco Mediate at the 108th U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

The playoff will begin at noon EST, 9 a.m. local time.

Woods was in such obvious pain during a dramatic Saturday night charge up the leaderboard that some players speculated he might not even make it to the first tee Sunday. "There were rumors, is he going to play today," said Mediate, who played one group ahead of Woods and shot an even par 71, finishing tied with Woods at 1-under-par for the tournament. "That man will crawl around if he has to."

Woods overcame an ugly double-bogey, bogey start to shoot a final-round 73, punctuated by a traumatic, dramatic birdie at the last. He drove his ball errantly in the left fairway bunker, laid up errantly into the right rough, and then got up-and-down from 105 yards.

"That was actually one of the worst parts of the green," Woods said of his tying putt. "It's so bumpy down there. And I just kept telling myself two and a half balls outside 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. I hit it good. It took forever to break, but it finally snuck in there at the end."

Lee Westwood, trying to become the first European to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970, led for part of the day but missed his own birdie putt on 18 that would have put him in the playoff. Playing with Woods in the final twosome, he shot 73 to finish even par, solo third.

Robert Karlsson (71) and D.J. Trahan (72) tied for fourth at 2-over for the tournament.

Woods has played hurt before, most memorably when he crushed the field by 11 shots at Bay Hill in 2003 in between bouts of on-course vomiting. But he's never competed quite like this. Every swing came with the possibility of a bolt of pain up his left leg, making this edition of Tiger Tales equal parts Kirk Gibson and Casey Martin.

Asked about the knee, Woods gave his characteristic reply: "It is what it is."

He will be playing for his 14th major championship title Monday, and his third U.S. Open trophy (the first since 2002). His 65th PGA Tour win would push him past Ben Hogan in career victories, behind only Jack Nicklaus (73) and Sam Snead (82). Woods is 13-0 when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead at a major, and 43 for 46 overall on the PGA Tour.

On Sunday the world No. 1 at times seemed to be trying to outlast only his physical limitations, but the 45-year-old Mediate proved surprisingly tough. He scratched out 12 pars to go along with his three birdies and three bogeys, staying out in front much of the day. Only his bogey at the par-4 15th hole, where he hit the cart path off the tee, gave Woods a chance to perform his 11th-hour theatrics.

"One more day," Woods said. "I gave myself a chance. It looked like I was playing myself out of the tournament."

Woods's superb putting, on full display Friday and Saturday, was dormant most of Sunday. What's more, he showed signs that his physical discomfort was starting to erode his renowned mental toughness. He made an uncharacteristic error on the par-5 13th hole, playing for the green in two but blasting a 3-wood left into the tangled weeds and an unplayable lie. On a birdie hole for many others, he made a bogey 6.

He bogeyed the 15th hole, too, after losing his tee shot way right, a common miss for a player whose left knee grew increasingly painful as the tournament wore on.

Although the USGA utilized the new, way-back tee on the 13th hole, stretching it to all of its 614 yards on Sunday, the tee was moved well forward on the next hole, creating a driveable par-4 at 267 yards. In between clubs, Woods didn't go for it, and made par, while Mediate and Westwood did, and made birdie.

The tee also was moved up on the par-5 18th hole, where long-hitting Dustin Johnson blasted a drive within 200 yards of the green, and most players had a go at the green in two. All told the course played at 7,280, well off its maximum length of 7,643.

That was a welcome sight for Mediate and other players of average length. Heath Slocum shot a 6-under-par 65 in the morning to get to 4-over total, a good sign not just for Rocco but for all the leaders, who had yet to tee off. There were birdies to be made.

Mediate, ranked 157th in the world, could have secured his first major championship title and fifth PGA Tour victory had he birdied the 18th hole, the easiest on the course. But he hit his approach shot 35 feet past the pin and didn't play enough break on his birdie putt. Still, he remained optimistic.

"It's going to be unbelievable; I can't believe I'm even in this situation at all," Mediate said of the upcoming playoff. "It's great.

"This week has been a total dream," he continued. "Heck, I missed eight of the first 10 cuts I played this year on Tour. Come on. Come on. Seriously. So I get to come back [to the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black] next year, I get to go back to Augusta next year. I get to do all kinds of things."

When Mediate bogeyed the par-4 fifth hole to drop into a tie for the lead with Westwood at 1-under, 11 players were within four shots of the lead, but none could mount a charge.

Geoff Ogilvy, who won the 2006 U.S. Open, looked as if he was sneaking up on Open title number two when he birdied the fifth and seventh holes to get to 1-under for the day, even par for the tournament and a shot off the lead. But he bogeyed the par-5 ninth hole, a loss of almost two shots to the field, and the par-4 10th to fall back.

Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion who has not won a major since the 2002 British Open, lurked at 2-over-par for much of the day, within striking distance. Then he got caught up in the right rough on the 15th hole, made a 7 and was done.

Despite his terrible start, Woods never let himself get too far back. He was the heavy favorite this week, even with his well-chronicled injury. He won the 2003 Buick Invitational three months after surgery on his left knee, shooting 70-66-68-68. This time Woods came to Torrey Pines just two months after surgery, and has been in considerably more pain than he's shown at any time in his career. This was thought to be a familiar enough scenario, and setting, but it's getting less so by the day.

To better his effort of five years ago, on a tougher course and with higher stakes, against an opponent who refuses to go away, Woods will have to tough it out one more day.

"I'm sure we'll talk a little bit," he said. "Roc is — he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. 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 trying to win a U.S. Open. And we'll have our moments where we'll go out separate ways and be focused for each and every shot."

 

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