SAN DIEGO - Tiger Woods cradled the silver U.S. Open trophy in his right hand and limped toward the edge of the Pacific bluffs, each step as much a burden as the 91 holes he played at Torrey Pines for a major that might have been his most amazing yet.
Out of competition for two months because of knee surgery, he won the toughest test in golf.
For the second straight day, Woods came to the 18th hole one shot behind and stood over a birdie putt to avoid a shocking collapse.
His knee throbbing and heart pounding, he delivered. He always does.
An epic U.S. Open finally ended Monday afternoon on the 19th hole of a playoff when Woods outlasted a gritty Rocco Mediate for a victory that surprised even him.
“I think this is probably the best ever,” Woods said. “All things considered, I don’t know how I ended up in this position, to be honest with you. It was a long week. A lot of doubt, a lot of questions going into the week. And here we are, 91 holes later.”
Now the greater question is his future.
All week, Woods had managed to mask the pain, walking with an almost imperceptible limp. Finally, he could give in to it. Walking toward the bluffs for his last round of interviews, he could barely make it up the hill.
Woods conceded that he risked further damage by playing the U.S. Open, and said it was possible that he had indeed made it worse.
He does not know when he will play next, even uncertain whether he will show up at Royal Birkdale in five weeks for the British Open to continue his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors. Torrey Pines was Woods’ 14th major and made him the only player besides Nicklaus to win the career Grand Slam three times over.
“I think I need to shut it down for a little bit,” Woods said. “It’s a bit sore. I need to take a little bit of a break.”
It might take that long for this victory to sink in.
Caught in a tussle with Mediate, a 45-year-old with a creaky back and no fear, Woods blew a three-shot lead with eight holes to play before rallying with a birdie to send this 18-hole playoff into overtime.
On the verge of one of golf’s great upsets, Mediate instead became another victim.
He had a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to win — not many players get a chance like that against Woods — and pulled it just slightly.
“I just yanked it a touch,” Mediate said. “But I can’t really complain. I did the best I could.”
Woods reached the green in two and his 45-foot eagle putt rolled some four feet past the hole. He backed off the putt when a seagull’s shadow crossed over his line, then watched it tumble in for birdie. Both Woods and Mediate finished at even-par 71.
Going to the seventh hole for sudden death, Mediate drove left into a bunker, pulled that shot to the edge of the bleachers, chipped 18 feet past the hole and missed the par putt.
“Great fight,” Woods told him as they embraced on the green.
It was almost more than Woods could handle, yet he escaped again. He won the U.S. Open for the third time, and the first since it was last held on a public course at Bethpage Black in 2002.
“I’m glad I’m done,” Woods said. “I really don’t feel like playing anymore.”
Mediate’s odyssey began two weeks ago when he had to survive a sudden-death playoff simply to qualify for this U.S. Open. Even more unlikely was going toe-to-toe with Woods — whom Mediate referred to as a “monster” — and nearly slaying him.
Mediate struggled to keep his emotions after taking bogey on the first extra hole, but he walked off Torrey Pines with 12,000 new friends who crammed both sides of every fairway for a playoff that was tighter than anyone imagined.
“Obviously, I would have loved to win,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say. They wanted a show; they got one.”
Did they ever.
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