N.C.

Before the final round of the U.S. Open, Julie Campbell called her husband Michael. "Are you ready for this one?" she said.

"Yeah, I'm ready," Campbell replied, acting nonchalant even though he was in fourth place, just four shots out of the lead.

But his wife wasn't satisfied. She wouldn't accept a half-answer to a serious question. She'd lived the whole 10-year story of his fall from near-stardom to the verge of quitting the sport and, now, back to a great stage once more.

"No, are you really ready for this one?" she insisted.

"I told her, 'Yes, I'm really ready for this one,' " her husband said. "Through all this, she has always been my backbone."

Few long-shot golfers have ever been more ready for their one day -- in Campbell's case, quite probably the only day in his life -- when every circumstance has conspired to give him one glorious, if improbable, chance to grab his piece of history.

Campbell not only won this 105th Open, which ranks among the greatest sporting achievements by a New Zealander in his country's history, but he faced down Tiger Woods throughout the back nine to do it. While many of the greatest players in the world, including third-round leader Retief Goosen, could not break 80 on hard-hearted Pinehurst No. 2, Campbell matched the lowest score of the day with a 1-under-par 69.

Yet this out-of-the-blue victory, one of the longer shots to hit the board in a major championship, was even more impressive than his 71-69-71-69 -- 280. After a birdie at the 17th hole, Campbell led Woods by four shots and could waltz to victory. No one else in the elite field ended closer than five shots to the 36-year-old Maori, ranked 80th in the world thanks to six wins on the European Tour.

In the tight-knit world of golf, Campbell's story is well known.

"It's amazing, because at one point, Michael had completely lost his game," said Woods, who shot 69 but started with bogeys at Nos. 1 and 2, then squandered his chance to put maximum pressure on Campbell by bogeying Nos. 16 and 17 as well.

Ten years ago, at the age of 26, Campbell led the British Open by two shots after three rounds. But, as he says now, "I had no clue" and shot 76 to finish third. Suddenly, he found himself "a hot item" and flew all over the world, once playing eight events in a row in seven different countries. "Maybe it was greed," he said.

Soon, too much golf led to a wrist injury. And the injury led to the disintegration of his game. Campbell seldom broke 80 and sometimes couldn't break 90. By 1998, Campbell was seriously considering quitting the sport.

"Once, I threw my golf bag across a hotel room. I thought, 'I'll get an ax and chop them up,' " he said. After he lost his playing privileges on the lowliest of the Asian minor league tours, "I had nowhere to play," he recalled. Enough sponsor's invitations kept him in the game, but barely.

As for this Open, it's strictly by a win-the-lottery shot that Campbell even got to play at Pinehurst. The U.S. Golf Association had never before had sectional qualifying outside the United States. But it did -- in England, where the Campbells now live.

"The USGA was kind enough to give us nine [qualifying] spots 3,000 miles away," Campbell said. "Without that, I would never be here now."

After his victory, Woods's caddie Steve Williams, who is also from New Zealand, hugged Campbell and told him, "You made a lot of people back home very, very proud." With that, Campbell broke down -- again. Still, he did not lose his sense of humor. Woods makes so much money a year that Williams is known as the highest-paid "athlete" in New Zealand.

"Now I've got it," said Campbell, who admitted that he had no idea how much he'd won, though he's planning to keep the $1.1 million as well as the trophy that he continued to call "this puppy" two hours after his final putt.

"The Maoris are a very proud, proud race, as well they should be," Woods said. "Michael, what he's done today, is one of the biggest sporting accomplishments for New Zealand. . . . If you exclude the [rugby] All Blacks, there's nothing else they really focus on. . . . Now, he's taken golf to a whole new level."

Ironically, Woods knows more about golf in New Zealand -- and Campbell -- than most people. Though friends now, they have a history. In 2001, Woods entered the New Zealand Open because of his connection with Williams. However, he was given a $2 million guarantee. Campbell found out that ticket prices had skyrocketed from $20 to $200 and organized a protest.

Cooler heads prevailed, the protest was dropped, ticket prices fell to less unreasonable levels, Tiger played and the incident died. Still, how many golfers have ever protested against Tiger Woods, then denied him a U.S. Open title?

In defeat, Woods has never seemed more mature. All week he has been friends with or known the career details of all the "no names" on the leader board. In past eras, it's doubtful Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson had quite as much a common touch among his fellow pros.

This was only the second time that Woods has ever been runner-up in a major. Asked if he knew how many times that fate befell Nicklaus, he answered instantly, "19."

"Both times I've finished second I had wonderful chances to win. I just did not get it done down the stretch," said Woods, probably too harsh in his evaluation.

After winning the Masters and nearly capturing this Open despite some of his worst putting, Woods was able to feel vindication in all the changes he has made in his game and private life since he left coach Butch Harmon.

"I've come a long way," said Woods, who went 10 majors without a win before his victory at this year's Masters. "All the people who slammed me for making changes, this shows why I did it."

For Campbell, nothing will ever approach this vindication, 10 years in the making. Now, he joins recent unexpected major champions such as Paul Lawrie, Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel on trophies they'll cherish forever.

Golf history loves its footnotes, and this Open has a unique one. During a delay on the 15th tee, when Campbell's lead was down to two shots and his visits to various bathrooms around the course were increasing in frequency, his playing partner Olin Browne, who was enduring a miserable day, took Campbell aside to tell him a joke.

"Olin is a true gentleman. When I needed someone to help relax me, he really helped me," said Campbell. "I thank him from the bottom of my heart."

For his exceptional play, and his even more improbable story, all of golf thanks Michael Campbell.

"You made a lot of people back home very, very proud," U.S. Open winner Michael Campbell, above, was told by Steve Williams, a fellow New Zealander who also happens to be Tiger Woods's caddie.