SAN DIEGO — It was ten seconds that shook the Open. That’s how long it took for an eagle putt by Tiger Woods to traverse the 75 feet or so from the back of the 13th green to the bottom of the cup. The eagle propelled Tiger back into red numbers — players roosting there were an endangered species Saturday at Torrey Pines — and announced what we already knew: Woods isn’t giving up his dance with destiny without a fight to the last.
That roar was one that may live forever in Torrey Pines history, at least if Woods goes on to win the U.S. Open. Then again, it was nearly matched within the hour when Woods lofted a high pitch from left of the 17th green and watched it one-bounce into the cup for birdie. As another thunderous roar erupted from an electrified gallery, Woods grinned with his head down. It may yet prove to be a significant shot in historical terms, but it was a fortunate accident and Woods acknowledged that. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” he said later. “I was thinking, don’t make a 6, and I made a 3.”
If that wasn’t enough, there was the little matter of a 40-foot eagle putt on the last green, a stroke of genius that gave Woods the lead by himself heading into the final round. Another stunning turn, another raucous ovation, another Tiger miracle. If you don’t believe in destiny after those three shots Saturday, you’d better reconsider.
Though Rocco Mediate held the Open lead for most of the third round, Saturday ultimately belonged to Woods, who flat-out hijacked the tournament over the last six holes with two eagles and a birdie for a one-under-par 70.
As if his play wasn’t dramatic enough, Woods added a human element to the drama, too. He struggled after that galvanizing eagle at the 13th hole, flinching on his surgically repaired left knee and flaring several tee shots down the stretch because of it. After a painful miss on the 17th tee, Woods hobbled in a small circle before limping down the fairway.
With each flinch and grimace from Woods, the Open ceased to be about Lee Westwood (who had just finished at two-under-par), or Mediate or Geoff Ogilvy or the disaster that was Phil Mickelson. It was about Woods battling his biggest opponent this week — his left knee. There was no mistaking this for Ben Hogan coming back from the car accident or Ken Venturi wobbling through the heat at Congressional, but on the 18th tee Woods took extra time preparing to hit his tee shot, a shot he wasn’t eager to play because he knew the swing was going to hurt. He willed himself to finish the swing and forget the pain, and he succeeded.
He went through a similar routine before his approach shot, a 5-wood from 227 yards. After his ball found the green, he winced at first and eventually doubled over in pain. After playing partner Robert Karlsson’s long eagle putt hung on the lip and he tapped in for birdie, Woods made the stroke of highlight footage future. There were no histrionics this time, no trademark fist-pump and quick-walk, no shouted epitaphs, just Woods holding up a clenched fist with a tight-lipped grin. He had willed himself to a closing eagle and that much closer, maybe, to his third Open title.
After his round, Woods admitted the obvious: his knee is affecting his play. The problem is, he doesn’t know when it’s going to be a factor. It’s not necessarily an issue every time he rips a drive or hits a wedge. “I never know when it’s going to happen,” he said, while admitting that the knee has gotten increasingly painful each day.
Asked what he needed to do Sunday to claim his fourteenth major title, Woods joked, “Just like today — 17 pars and a birdie.” When the laughter faded, he added, “I hope to be a little more consistent tomorrow.”
The rest of the field didn’t evaporate under Tiger’s heroics, it only seemed that way. Heading into Sunday’s finale, Woods leads by one over Westwood, by two over Mediate, by three over Ogilvy and D.J. Trahan and by four over a group of five players that includes Karlsson.
Mediate had opened a three-stroke lead early on the back nine but started giving shots back. He pushed a par putt to the right to bogey the par-5 13th, then butchered the 15th, missing the green left then watching in horror as his flop shot airmailed the green and into the corner of the bunker on the other side. He splashed out to 30 feet and two-putted for double bogey. That handed the lead to England’s Westwood, who missed a six-footer for birdie on the 18th green.
Stuart Appleby began the day with the lead but four-putted from 18 feet for a double bogey at the 5th hole, then three-putted from three feet for bogey at the 9th. The Aussie posted 41 on the front and vanished from contention.
But Appleby’s collapse didn’t contend for the ‘Flameout of the Day’ award. Hands down that went to Mickelson, the pre-tournament and hometown favorite. He played the first two rounds minus his driver but put it back into the bag for Saturday’s third round. It didn’t help much. Mickelson’s tournament ended at the par-5 13th, where he hit driver into the rough, had to lay up and then spun three successive wedge shots off the front of the green and back to his feet en route to a quadruple-bogey 9.
Afterwards Mickelson — not for the first time — smiled his way through an Open trauma. “I’ve had a nine on thirteen before,” he said. “I was eight years old but I have had a nine there. What can you do? It was really one hole that hurt the round. Otherwise, I was one over for the day and played okay. If I make birdie there, I shoot even par and I’d be within striking distance. Unfortunately, it happens. It sucks, but it happens.”
If you’re the type of person who likes to compare, on Saturday Woods beat Mickelson on the 13th hole by six shots. On one leg.
It’s going to be quite a Sunday.