SAN DIEGO — The last 90 minutes of Saturday’s play all but guaranteed that another U.S. Open is headed to Torrey Pines someday. The combination of Tiger Woods’ heroics — two eagles and a chip-in birdie over the last six holes — and a prime-time viewing audience on the East Coast probably added up to a blockbuster payoff for the United States Golf Association. For thrill factor alone, it had to rate a 9.9.
Sunday’s finish will be hard-pressed to match it. The big question is whether we’re going to see another chapter of history, Tiger’s march to his 14th major championship title, or history denied.
You don’t have to believe in fate or destiny or extraterrestrials to think that Tiger’s thrilling finish on Saturday means this Open belongs to him. But let’s be fair, there are nine other players within five shots and, as Phil Mickelson proved Saturday, there are 9s lurking out there on the South Course. Here’s how I rate the players most likely to win:
The favorite: Tiger Woods. This one is obvious, although probably not to everyone. One Detroit scribe wrote earlier in the week, “No one wants to say it… But I will. Tiger has no chance of winning the U.S. Open this week… The reason is that Tiger is human. In fact, if it weren’t for the kinder, gentler USGA making strong hints about softening the course I might go so far as to say that Tiger would probably miss the cut.” You didn’t have to know much about golf, or Tiger, to realize what a foolhardy prediction that was. Woods had three PGA Tour wins and a second in the Masters on a damaged knee. He arrived at Torrey Pines with a repaired knee. You know the rest.
Though Woods has double-bogeyed the opening hole in two of his three rounds here, he made magnificent comebacks each day, including back-to-back eagles at the 13th. Each time it seems that he may drift from contention, he roars back. Like on Saturday, with his three miracles at 13, 17 and 18. If you missed them, turn your TV on immediately and find the highlights. It was a day for the ages. Woods has never lost a major when he’s held or shared the lead going into the final round (13-0, if you’re keeping score at home). It isn’t likely to happen Sunday, either.
The challenger: Rocco Mediate. There’s just one reason Tiger isn’t a sure thing this time — his knee, which bothered him so much on the closing three holes that he was spraying shots. He admits the knee is getting worse each day, the cumulative effect of 54 holes of tournament golf. It may be so sore Sunday that he just can’t play the way he wants to, and that opens the door.
I like Mediate’s game and his attitude. He is an underrated player because back problems minimized the last decade of his career. He’s healthy again now, he’s semi-fearless and he’s having a blast. He loves the Open and he can win it. He has finished fourth and sixth, and in ’06 he was in the lead at the Masters with nine holes to go when his back seized up. He fits the profile: a terrific ballstriker and not bad on the greens. The Open isn’t about one-putting for birdies, it’s about two-putting for pars. Mediate can do that.
The contender: Lee Westwood. You can’t discount England’s Westwood, a guy who has made a habit of beating up the Americans in recent Ryder Cups. He’s a very accomplished player with a lot of experience in winning yet he’s rarely contended in a major championship. Sunday is almost uncharted water for him. On your list of best players who never won a major, he’s in the top five. He would not be a surprise. But he’s going to have to overtake Tiger.
The thoroughbred: Geoff Ogilvy. The Aussie is the second most talented player on the leaderboard (I think you already know who No. 1 is). He is doing exactly what he did when he won the Open two years ago at Winged Foot, which is to just hang around the lead. He went birdie-birdie to get back to even par on the back nine on Saturday, then fumbled with a double bogey at the 14th before bouncing right back with a birdie at the 15th. He’s long, he’s got a great short game and he’s already won an Open. He’s a future multiple major-winner. He’s got a chance.
The dark horse: D.J. Trahan. This Open is the first cut he’s ever made in a major championship. The former Clemson star fits the great ballstriker-mediocre putter mold that works well at Opens. He’s got a lot of confidence, which I like. He probably thinks he’s supposed to win the Open, which I like. Don’t overlook him.
The long shot: Mike Weir. Your former Masters champ is tied with Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and John Merrick at three over par, six behind Tiger. Weir has been looking more like his old self in recent weeks and making putts. He’ll need Tiger to back up a little bit, which is feasible on an Open course, and he’ll need to fire a tournament-best score of 65 or 66. Sound outrageous? Not any more than winning the green jacket. And he’s already done that.