The Legend Grows
SAN DIEGO What might have been the greatest of all U.S. Opens, and one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports if Rocco Mediate had somehow won, finally ended after 91 holes as merely the best triumph of Tiger Woods's imperial career. Seldom has the sublime degenerated into the merely magnificent -- with a dash of the miraculous -- and yet left no one dissatisfied, everyone proud and all amazed.
The legend of Francis Ouimet, the 20-year-old amateur who beat Ted Ray and Harry Vardon in 1913, is safe, though not by a great deal. The story of Ben Hogan, playing 36 holes on the final day in 1950 with throbbing legs after surviving a life-threatening car crash, can retain its place. Arnold Palmer, trailing by seven shots entering Sunday in 1960, can still take his bows for driving the first green at Cherry Hills and going on to win with a 65. Ken Venturi, fighting heat prostration at Congressional in 1964, then hitting the stick with a 1-iron shot on his 34th hole of a near-100-degree day, does not have to move down the list in golf's lore.
But all must shuffle sideways, make room for Tiger and Rocco, and admit their work here does not take a back seat to anyone. This was melodrama, symbolism and a gentlemanly sport raised to its apotheosis. And, for Woods, who confessed after this round that he may have reinjured his surgically repaired knee, that he played against his doctor's advice, yet has never been prouder of himself, this tournament on the Pacific bluffs completed a life-cycle circle on Father's Day weekend.
Woods led Mediate by three shots after 10 holes in this playoff, then had to make birdie at the 18th to force a playoff-to-a-playoff, which he won when Mediate bogeyed the first sudden-death hole.
After the Junior World event in 1986, Woods said: "My dad treated me. He said, 'Okay, you're 10. Now you're a big boy. You can play a real golf course. Where do you want to play?' " Of course, he picked this most stunning Pacific-side track, just an hour from home.
"I said Torrey Pines South. Everything was driver, 3-wood, 3-wood, 3-wood. About like I was this week, actually," Woods said. He laughed. After all, this week, "I had four doubles, three eagles, a few three-putts, a couple of snipes off the tees, a couple of slices, some bombs, anything and everything happened this week, really.
"It was a long week, a lot of doubt, a lot of [injury] questions. And 91 holes," he said. "But I wasn't going to bag it. I don't know how to do that . . . As far as future ramifications, I'm not really good at listening to doctor's orders too well. Hey, I won this week, so it is what it is."
Did doctors warn him that he could injure his left knee, already operated on three times, further if he played? He nodded. And did he? "Maybe," he said.
That's the sole reason that this tournament now looms so large for Woods -- slightly above his first major title at the Masters at the age of 21 and his insane 15-shot win at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open. Those feats were done by a young and completely healthy golfer, something Woods may, or may not, ever be again. This week, he got his third U.S. Open title with -- in the ersatz "battle" of sports -- a battlefield cluster and a purple heart. It's miles from the real thing, but, for the son of a Special Forces soldier, a validation Woods has sought throughout his career, even if he may not have known it until now.
"All athletes deal with injuries. Sports isn't usually kind to your body," said Woods who, frankly, until now, has had a smooth run. Compared to Mediate, who has suffered for a dozen years with back injuries that threatened his career, he's almost had a free ride. "There's never any excuses. You just go play whether you're 100 percent or not. So, lets go."
And go Woods and the 45-year-old journeyman, ranked 158th in the world, truly did. Go and go and go.
"I'm a little tired. I'm a little old," said Mediate, who seemed utterly washed up, gabbing in the Golf Channel booth last night, yet came within an eyelash from becoming the oldest Open winner ever. "He's got me by  years and a thousand yards off the tee. But I kept hanging in there. And I almost got him."