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Knee Deep In Pain, He Plays Through

The 108th U.S. Open played at Torrey Pines South Course in San Diego.

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By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 16, 2008

SAN DIEGO

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The image that we will see replayed endlessly, even after Monday's U.S. Open playoff is finished, will be the 12-foot putt on the 72nd green that Tiger Woods made Sunday to catch Rocco Mediate at the last possible instant. We'll see Woods erupt in a quadruple double-fist pump of ecstasy and pride, bellowing as he sees the bumpy, bouncing side-hill putt curl in the side door to extend this battle for America's national golf title an extra day.

And we'll, no doubt, hear his pride that, faced with a ridiculously bumpy poa annua grass, that he simply willed himself to execute "a pure stroke" so that he could "stand tall afterwards" whether his do-or-die putt "plinkoed in or plinkoed out." But that's not what this Sunday at the Open was about, nor why it should be remembered as one of Woods's absolutely finest and most defining hours. What should absorb us, amaze us, is the way Woods's day began, the choices he faced, the pain and risk of injury -- who knows how bad -- that he simply decided to ignore out of some Special Forces code of honor he certainly inherits from his late father.

Children here, beside several greens, chanted in unison as Woods passed, "Happy Father's Day, Tiger," because he now has an infant daughter, Sam Alexis. How sweet. But that isn't the right Father's Day angle, folks. This day was about a son honoring the memory of his hard-bark dad Earl Woods, a Vietnam Green Beret. This was boot camp and jungle and show-me-what-are-you-made-of-kid for Tiger.

Time will tell if Tiger paid, perhaps, a foolish price. If the three surgeries he has had on his left knee are followed in coming years by three more, we might feel differently about how blithely we cheered him on this week.

If the five rounds of Open golf he'll have to play -- after not even walking more than nine holes in a day in preparation, just eight weeks after surgery -- are a source of new injury, not just "playing with pain," we'll need to revisit all our cheerful enthusiasm for Monday's ultimate Odd Couple playoff. Who can resist a battle between the man Mediate calls "the greatest player ever to walk on grass" and the 45-year-old frenetic journeyman himself who is ranked 158th in the world and happy just to have any career at all after a dozen years of chronic back miseries.

The defining moment of this day was not on the 18th green when, as Mediate said, Tiger "did what he does" -- focus like a fiend and put the ball in the hole when all the cash and every shred of glory are on the table. Not near the hole, mind you, the way England's Lee Westwood narrowly -- oh, shucks -- missed a similar putt to make the playoff moments earlier. Westwood actually came up short. Short!

Tiger doesn't do "nice try. Not your fault. It's a lousy green." He does "in the damn hole." He gets up and down from the spinach 101 yards out -- around water with almost no green to work with -- on the last hole of the Open.

But we knew that. What we didn't know until this week is what Woods showed us, more vividly and, perhaps, more disturbingly, each day. And it is what he will have to show us again Monday, when his knee may continue its pattern of rebelling more each day.

The moment of decision in this Open arrived for Woods on the second hole, not the 18th. As Tiger left the second tee, he looked like an athlete in extremis, a man in such pain that, if this had been a weekly PGA Tour event, he would surely have hobbled to the nearest golf cart, withdrawn from the event and headed to the doctor of his choice for a cocktail of painkillers for the surgically repaired left knee that, all the world now knows, is not remotely close to being healed or whole.

What thought filled his mind? Was it the pain that had led him -- with his first five swings of the day -- to hit a wild drive right-of-right, a crazy drive left-of-left, a recovery shot that hit a tree, another recovery that hit another tree and a wedge from the rough that missed the green? Yes, certainly that. Perhaps no great player has ever started the final round of a major championship with the lead and started the day with a sequence of shots so worthy of a 120 shooter.


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