Beware The Wounded Tiger

He Winced, He Wobbled, He Grimaced. But A
Serious Knee Injury Wasn't Going To Keep Tiger
Woods From His Third U.S. Open Title

2008 Championship Annual: The Year In Review

By Alan Bastable   

Not without pain: Tiger Woods grimaced his way around Torrey Pines due to a wobbly knee. (John Mummert/USGA)
From the moment Tiger Woods yanked his tee shot into the rough on the opening hole of the 2008 U.S. Open, he was not his indomitable self, hardly surprising given he was just eight weeks removed from surgery on his left knee. Woods went on to make a 6 at the first, tacked on another double bogey at the 14th, and then boomed a tee shot at 18 that left him wincing as if he had just cracked a tooth. "Didn't feel very good, no," Woods said later. It was the first palpable sign that if Woods was somehow going to win the 108th Open he would need to overcome his greatest challenger yet. Himself.

Professional athletes are wired to play through pain. "That's just part of playing sports," explained Woods, who at times fashioned his driver into a cane as he hobbled around the bluffs of the South Course at Torrey Pines. You can think of football players, baseball players, soccer players, basketball players who've played through pain, but it's rarely a part of golf. In golf, there seldom are "must-win" games or teammates to disappoint. Enduring pain just isn't part of the job — at least not the kind of pain exacted by Woods' ruptured left knee ligament, fractured left tibia and 125-mph swing.

Which made Woods' Open performance — all four rounds plus his Monday playoff win over Rocco Mediate — intensely compelling, an improbable feat described perfectly by Woods himself in just four simple words: "My greatest ever championship."

Whether this was the greatest U.S. Open Championship is of course up for debate, no matter what the champion thinks. But it's difficult to recall one that, after 91 holes, left us wanting 91 more. And more of 45-year-old Mediate, for that matter, the blue-collar bastion who was so loose under mind-numbing pressure that he lookedlike he was playing a four-ball with his friends.

And while we're at it, more of Torrey Pines, a wonderfully atypical Open venue, with salty breezes, surfers riding the Pacific waves beneath the sandstone cliffs, and a nude beach beneath the fourth hole. You don't see that at Medinah!

And yes, more of Tiger Woods who, two days after the Open's thrilling 19-hole
conclusion, announced that his knee, as many had suspected, was much worse than he had let on. He was done for the year.

The week had begun much as it ended: with talk of Tiger's knee. Since undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove damaged cartilage two days after the Masters, Woods hadn't walked 18 holes, let alone 72 in four days, and the true extent of his condition was a mystery. "It's a little sore, but not anything that I haven't dealt with before," he said, veiling the painful truth. Woods later said he had been less than forthright in order to "keep the focus on the Open."

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    The USGA had done its own part to keep the spotlight on its main event, for the first time rationing the top 12 players in the world into four star-studded groupings. Brad Pitt, Bono and George Clooney couldn't have generated more hysteria than the world's Nos. 1, 2 and 3: Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott. As the trio ambled around the course through the first two rounds, tens of thousands of fans swarmed to them like ants to a picnic. Men stood on milk crates, straining for a glimpse, children scaled trees and Phil's wife, Amy, carried a periscope. "Couldn't see anything without it," she said.

    Her husband is a crowd-pleaser at every tour stop, and he also is to Torrey what Ronald Reagan is to Republicans — an embodiment. Mickelson was born in San Diego, grew up playing Torrey and has won three Buick Invitationals there. That made him not only the local, sentimental favorite but, with a wobbly Woods, also the favorite — period.

    If only he could have found the fairway. In the name of accuracy, Mickelson, the same man who carried two drivers to victory at the 2006 Masters, played the first two rounds of this Open sans driver. It was a curious strategy on the longest major venue in history, and after Mickelson hit just six fairways in each of the first two rounds he lifted the embargo. 

    But, ironically, it was his trusty wedge game that buried him. From just short of the green at the 13th, a par 5 that Woods eagled twice, Mickelson needed four pitches to hold the green on Saturday. Three putts later he carded a 9 en route to a score of 76.

    Instead of condemning an easy target, Mickelson praised it. "The USGA did the best job it's ever done in setting this golf course up where it's fair," Mickelson said. "Whoever plays the best golf this week is going to win. There's no fluke out there."

    The field averaged nearly 75 strokes per round, but in a departure from past Opens that have granted golfers little more than despair, Torrey offered hope (see "Mix and Match," right). The USGA's creative setup allowed a chance to go low. On Sunday, Heath Slocum shot a 65, the lowest U.S. Open round in five years. For the 42,500 fans in attendance each day, it meant a chance to get loud. Which of course they did.

    There were other notable differences about this Open at Torrey, the second truly public course to host an Open, after Bethpage Black in 2002 (it's back to the Black for 2009). There were the cool, foggy mornings — the "June Gloom," as it's known in these parts — which seemed more apt for a British Open. Spectators were banned from smoking, an Open first by mandate of the city's parks department. And also for the first time the USGA scheduled the starting times so that NBC could air the third and fourth rounds in prime time on the East Coast. It was reality TV at its finest, and viewers ate it up. Sunday's telecast was the third most-watched fourth round in Open history. Even online coverage broke records (see "High-Tech Success" on page 16).

    If Woods was the star, Mediate was the loveable sidekick. Chatty, personable, and a little soft around the middle, Roc schmoozed with the galleries and proved that golfers don't need to be emotionless to be effective. He even wore a peace-sign belt buckle on Sunday, a day on which golfers in contention are supposed to declare war.

    Mediate gave up 40 yards to Woods off the tee, but not an inch in resolve. So what if he was the 157th-ranked player in world and winless in six years?

    An elated Tiger Woods reacts after draining the 12-foot birdie on the 72nd hole that forced Monday's playoff. (John Mummert/USGA)
    He's Rocco Mediate! Brazenly clad in Woods' trademark Sunday red during the seesaw Monday 18-hole playoff, Mediate ran off three straight birdies, beginning at the 13th hole, to take a one-stroke lead. On the 18th green, a mere 20 feet stood between Mediate and his first major title, but his birdie putt wouldn't cooperate. "I threw everything I had at him," Mediate said later. "The kitchen sink — everything I possibly had, right at him."

    Of course, against Tiger Woods "everything" frequently is not enough. The Tiger Show began in earnest on Friday afternoon when, after playing his first nine — actually Torrey's second nine — in 38, Woods reeled off five birdies for a 30, vaulting him to within one stroke of Stuart Appleby's 36-hole lead.

    After another slow start on Saturday that left Woods five off the pace through 12 holes, Mt. Woods erupted again. Grinding and grimacing — and limping — all the way, Woods snaked in a 70-footer for eagle at 13, clanked home a chip for birdie at 17 and dropped a 30-footer for another eagle at 18 to snatch the lead by one.

    Playing one group ahead, Mediate was dumbstruck. "It was just the most amazing display of athletic, mental power that ever was," he said later.

    As the week wore on, Woods became more vulnerable yet more unflappable. On Sunday evening, minutes after he willed in a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th green to force the playoff, two USGA media officials escorted him to a sports utility vehicle. As the car crawled down the dusty road to the media center, fans flocked to the vehicle as if it were carrying a miracle worker. Woods was hidden behind tinted windows, but it wasn't hard to imagine the grimace giving way to a grin. "I couldn't quit in front of these people," Woods said. "It wasn't going to happen."

    More than 21,000 of those people showed up the next morning to witness the final leg of Woods' run — well, limp — to his 14th major title. But in the waning moments the outcome looked anything but inevitable. On the second nine, Woods traded a three-stroke lead for a one-stroke deficit. "Bang, bang, bang," is how Mediate described it.

    But soon the banging died. When Woods two-putted the par-5 18th for birdie and Roc couldn't match, we were into sudden death. On the first extra hole, the par-4 seventh, Mediate's drive found sand, his second found a grandstand, and his scorecard found a bogey. A simple two-putt par sealed the deal for Woods, a painless finish to a painful week. "I'm glad I'm done," said Woods.

    He spoke only for himself. 

    Alan Bastable is a senior editor with GOLF Magazine.

    This article first appeared in the 2008 Championship Annual, a special publication mailed to USGA Members in November.

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