Woods Wins Open in Dramatic Playoff

Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate square off in a Monday playoff at the 108th U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

SAN DIEGO, June 16 -- Rocco Mediate had predicted late Sunday afternoon that he and Tiger Woods would put on a fabulous show in their 18-hole playoff Monday for the championship of the 108th U. S. Open. It was so grand, they actually needed 19 holes to complete one of the most compelling major events in the storied history of golf, one that Woods later described as "probably the greatest tournament I've ever had."

Woods needed a four-foot putt for birdie at the 18th hole of regulation play Monday to send their stirring match into a sudden-death round. And after a two-putt par from 20 feet on the 19th hole, the No. 1 player in the world and thousands watching all around the Torrey Pines South golf course could finally exhale when Mediate missed his own 20-foot par putt.

"This is probably the best ever," said Woods, who played in the tournament eight weeks after surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left knee but nevertheless managed to win the 14th major championship of his career, four short of the record 18 set by his childhood idol, Jack Nicklaus. "All things considered, I don't know how I ended up in this position, to be honest with you."

The playoff was an unlikely matchup, pitting one of the most accomplished and recognized athletes in the world against an unpretentious, slightly overweight career pro with just five victories on the Professional Golfers Association Tour, the last in 2002. But they put on a riveting, back-and-forth duel that culminated with Woods winning his third U.S. Open title in front of what some longtime observers said may have been the largest crowd ever to watch two men play a round of golf.

Tournament officials estimated as many as 24,000 flocked to this municipal golf course north of downtown San Diego that weaves around high ground above the Pacific Ocean, with some spectators arriving as early as 6 a.m. to get a prime viewing position. The 18th hole grandstand was mostly filled to capacity even as Woods and Mediate prepared to tee off on the first hole at 9 a.m. in the West, more than four hours before they would actually hit a shot at the pivotal finishing hole shortly after 1 p.m.

The fans were still arriving even as Woods and Mediate went back and forth at each other over the final nine holes. Woods, the heavy favorite against the 158th-ranked player in the world, took a three-shot lead when Mediate bogeyed the 10th hole, only to have his opponent get right back in the match with three straight birdies of his own starting at the 13th hole.

Woods and Mediate each had spirited support from crowds that lined the fairways four deep down every fairway, and six to eight deep around every green. Raucous chants of "Rocco, Rocco" rang out all day, and were particularly loud when Mediate nearly made a hole-in-one at the third hole, missing the cup by inches before settling for his first birdie of the day.

The two players, friends since Woods turned professional in 1996, occasionally had brief conversations during the round. But Mediate, a gregarious 45-year-old native of western Pennsylvania long known for his playful interaction with his competitors and the galleries, said he purposely kept his distance from Woods for the most part.

"We just talked a little bit here and there a few times," he said. "I can tell that sometimes he doesn't want to bother, so I don't go over and bother him. We talked about a few things over the day. It was great. It was fun."

"Rocco was loose all day," Woods, 32, said. "He was out there talking and having a great time enjoying the atmosphere. Just talking and enjoying it and smiling and having a great time with it. But when it comes down to it, when it's time to hit the shot, he goes into his own little world. It's pretty cool to see."

On the first tee, Mediate was a bundle of nervous energy before the two men teed off, pacing around, shaking every hand he could and chit-chatting with anyone who cared to listen. When the first tee announcer introduced the two United States Golf Association officials who would be refereeing the match, Mediate walked past and, to no one in particular, repeated a classic Rodney Dangerfield line from the cult golf movie "Caddyshack."

"Keep it fair," Mediate said with a beaming smile. "Keep it fair."

Mediate also showed up at the practice tee about 90 minutes before play began sporting a red golf shirt, the signature color Woods has always worn in any final round he's played because, Woods has said in the past, his Buddhist mother, Kultida, always told him it gave him powerful karma.

"I didn't think he'd wear [a red] one today," Mediate insisted. "I knew he wore it yesterday, so I decided last night."

Both players said they were far more energized by the enthusiastic crowds all around than they were by their own choice of apparel, though Woods said he wore the same red shirt in the playoff he'd used on Sunday. "Laundered," he added.

"It was unbelievable for both of us," Mediate said of the atmosphere. "I can't believe how many people showed up today. The fans were really good with both of us. They were screaming both our names. It was unreal. It was the most amazing tournament I've ever been involved in."

Woods grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs and has been playing Torrey Pines South since his father, Earl, brought him here as a 10-year-old to play his first round on a regulation 18-hole course. He has now won at Torrey seven times as a professional, the most victories at the same venue by any player in PGA Tour history.

"I always loved playing down here ever since I played as a junior," Woods said. "Now that I come back here and play as a professional and then now to have won a major championship on top of that, it's an unbelievable feeling."

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