Woods said it may have been his 'greatest tournament,' and it's hard to disagree

Tiger Woods, Torrey Pines, U.S. Open
Robert Beck/SI
Woods made a stunning 12-foot putt on 18 to force a playoff on Sunday.

SAN DIEGO — Women ran from hole-to-hole in flip-flops. Men scurried around in bare feet. Children climbed trees, and the hotels bordering the 18th hole opened the hatchways to their roofs. There was confusion: What happens if they're still tied? And there was panic. For those who were too slow or too proud to wade into the scrum, or just not tall enough to see, fans with tiny TV sets gave a running blow-by-blow.

The official attendance was 21,558 Monday, but at three gates no one was scanning tickets. According to a USGA official, the fan count was closer to 25,000, the most ever for a Monday playoff, shattering the mark of 11,000 from the 2001 playoff between Mark Brooks and Retief Goosen. For the fans at Torrey Pines and everyone who watched on TV, it will be hard to top the 108th U.S. Open, and even Tiger Woods, not a man given to overstatement, admitted it.

"This has probably been the greatest tournament I've ever had," he said.

"He's remarkable," Rocco Mediate said.

Agreed, and agreed.

Woods has gone overtime to win other majors, at the 2000 PGA (against Bob May) and the 2005 Masters (Chris DiMarco), but never under the dire circumstances he faced before finally prevailing with a par on the 19th hole Monday.

To watch his dazzling career — 14 majors and 65 PGA Tour wins and counting — is to be reminded of big-budget Hollywood. You know where the story is going, but the ride there is no less exhilarating.

"All things considered," Woods said, "I don't know how I ended up in this position."

Here's how.

Woods outlasted his surgically repaired left knee. Until the first round Thursday, he had not walked 18 holes since the final round of the Masters on April 13. He said he was taking painkillers for it by Sunday but was still wincing after swings and limping at times throughout his fourth and fifth rounds. (He looks almost certain to withdraw from next week's Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich.)

Woods outlasted another punishing U.S. Open golf course. Yes, he's won six times as a pro at Torrey Pines. But forget about that. This was a different course. Aside from Monday, when the Torrey Pines Gliderport reopened, not even the air traffic was the same. He was wild off the tee all week, but when Woods needed an eagle to stop the bleeding, he made one. Three times. When he had to make birdie to stay alive, he made one — twice. Sunday he did it by making an absolute mess of the 18th hole before a terrific wedge shot and bulls-eye 14-foot putt. And Monday, on the same hole, he laced a 300-yard drive down the fairway, reached the green in two, and two-putted.

Woods outlasted a composed, resilient and sly Rocco Mediate, who deliberately wore red to remind everyone that he, too, could be a closer, then retired the idea that he didn't have a prayer of winning by reeling off three straight back-nine birdies.

"I threw everything I had," said Mediate, the 45-year-old who smiled and laughed his way into the galleries' good graces.

Woods won by closing fast and furiously, as if his otherworldly sense of the moment was heightened further by the knowledge that he would soon be packing his left leg in ice.

He rocketed onto the leaderboard with a five-under 30 on his second nine on Friday, then made two eagles and a birdie in his last six holes on Saturday, going four under in that span.

At times Woods looked fated to win yet again on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, because a series of improbable events helped to fuel his runs. First came the wide-right tee shot on the par-4 first hole Friday, which came to rest just off the cart path, a clean lie from which Woods made birdie. It was a small break, but it was all he needed. "I started running them in there from everywhere," he said.

And he kept going.

Saturday's fireworks were far more improbable. Woods blasted his drive way right of the 13th fairway, but the shot was so bad it was good; he caught a clean lie where spectators had trampled the grass, hit a 5-iron to nearly 70 feet behind the flag, and made the downhill, severely right-to-left eagle putt to send a tremor rippling across the course.

He caught another break with a wild-right drive on 17, hit his approach in the rough and rattled his chip off the flagstick and in. After admittedly just trying to avoid 6, he had made a lucky 3, and he bowed his head and began to laugh. It was one of those days.

But Woods was also at his inventive best. Knowing his leg was preventing him from making his normal swing as dusk approached Saturday, he stood for a long time on the tee of the par-5 18th hole. As NBC's Johnny Miller observed, you could see the gears in his head working to find a swing that might work on one and a half legs.

That he so quickly found that swing — a cut action that took some of the torque off his injured leg and got him first well down the fairway and then 30 feet behind the pin in two (cue: eagle number two) — illustrated peerless powers of imagination and visualization.

Plenty of athletes play hurt. Happens all the time. But as Davis Love III pointed out early in the week, the layoff, not the injury, would hamper Woods most at this U.S. Open. Concentration is like a muscle: Use it or it goes away.

The injury, the layoff, the golf course, the wily opponent — Woods was not at his best this week for many reasons. But it's a better show that way. He's at his best (most mesmerizing) when he's not at his best (somehow compromised).

Woods won by eight the last time the game's best players gathered here. No one was running then, except for the exits, but this was no Buick Invitational. This time he took us for the greatest thrill ride yet, in a career full of them. Maybe it was inevitable, but it was no less incredible. It was pure Tiger.

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