The eighteenth hole hasn’t been this silent in days. The events that have transpired during the last week have been chalk-full with enough excitement to keep the grandstands roaring from tee-off all the way up until the last pairing enters the clubhouse. But at this particular moment no one is making any sort of sound. Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest player in the history of golf, is standing over a twenty foot birdie putt that would put him in a tie for first place with Rocco Mediate. Such an occurrence would force an eighteen hole playoff round to decide the winner, and there is a sense among all those who are watching that the outcome of this situation is all but inevitable.
The waves crashing to shore in the distance serve as the only reminder that there is still a world beyond the green grass of Torrey Pines at this particular moment; although no one here is concerned with that world, or those waves. History is about to be made and no one dares to blink for fear of missing a single moment. After grueling minutes of anticipation as Tiger stares down the putt of his life, he addresses his golf ball. There is absolutely nothing in his demeanor to indicate that this putt is any different from the other millions upon millions of strokes he has taken with his putter during his lifetime, but this little ball carries with it the beginning of one of the greatest stories in golf’s long and rich history. No sooner than Tiger’s putter makes contact with his ball, the shouts of “In the hole!” and “you da man Tiger!” start pouring in from the grandstands. The line is good, the speed is good, and of course he is Tiger Woods. Backpedaling and cocking his arm back for the signature fist-pump before the ball has even fallen, Tiger is elated. No other golfer will ever match the intensity or the ebullience of Tiger Woods. The whole world knows they have just witnessed a remarkable feat of perseverance. And, as if it couldn’t get any better, this was only the beginning.
Rocco Mediate was the 157th player on the money list going in to the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines country club, just outside of Los Angeles, California. One can only assume that he had no idea of the history that he would have a hand in making during the week he was there competing. Rocco was in the club house, already finished with his round, when Tiger sunk his putt on number 18. Watching on the TV screen, Rocco simply said, “I knew he’d make it. He’s Tiger-freaking-Woods, and now I’ve gotta play him tomorrow.” Rocco had not won a single tournament on the PGA tour since 2002, and now was about to go head-to-head with one of the greatest players to ever live for 18 holes.
The playoff round started with a very quiet intensity. Mediate is noted for being one of the nicest guys on the Tour, and didn’t let the magnitude of the moment keep him from cracking a joke on the first tee. Tiger - who had not hit the fairway on hole number one during any of the four rounds prior to the playoff - striped his drive right down the center. Rocco joked saying “Oh, so now you decide to hit this fairway!” however; the light-heartedness of the day only lasted so long.
Tiger had been in visible pain all week long, wincing after powerful swings and hobbling off of tee-boxes, but only now, in the middle of the Monday playoff, was the general public finding out that Woods was playing with a torn anterior collateral ligament and hairline fracture in his left leg. The tournament was quickly given legendary implications. The likeable, easy-going underdog was pitted against the crippled and injured goliath of golf, and had already tested the limits of his perseverance. The storylines all came together to set the perfect stage for an epic finish.
Through 9 holes of play, Woods kept Rocco at bay for the most part, making the turn with a 2 stroke lead. But on the back 9 the underdog had his day, and it was beginning to become apparent that an epic finish was most certainly in store. Rocco started the back nine in much the same way he had the front. He gave up an early stroke to Tiger on hole number 10, falling to three strokes behind. But then something changed; on hole number 11 an errant drive from Tiger resulted in a par on a hole that had been an easy birdie all week long. Rocco, who kept his ball in the fairway off the tee, got up and down for his birdie with ease and moved to two strokes down. Hole number 12 was almost like a bad re-run that Woods found himself stuck in. After shanking another drive and limping away in visible pain, Tiger had to scramble just to make bogey. Rocco kept his composure and made a very smooth par. Mediate was now only one shot behind Tiger Woods and looked poised to make an unprecedented comeback, but there was no doubt that Tiger still had something left in the tank.
On the next hole, the two competitors went shot for shot and Tiger seemed as though he may have regained whatever it was he had lost during the two previous holes; though his leg still appeared to give him some fits. Both golfers finished hole 13 with pars. In the next two holes one of the most impressive storylines in all of golf began to unfold live on televisions across the country. Facing two back-to-back par fours that were both equally reachable for birdie, Rocco buckled down. Two straight holes turned in to two straight birdies for Mediate; and for Woods, who struggled with what looked to be excruciating pain and came away with two pars, that meant that now he was the one down by a stroke. An incredible turn of events had transpired before the world’s eyes. One was unsure now whether to root for the incredible underdog, who had taken the lead so quickly and with such poise, or the undeniable favorite who, although hobbled and unmistakably injured, seemed still to hold within him somewhere the ability to face the challenge he now had before him.
Having only three holes left to play in an eighteen hole playoff, and holding on to a one stroke lead, Rocco Mediate was in prime position to deny the world’s greatest golfer the title of 2008 U.S. Open Champion. The two golfers kept up with each other’s pace through two of the remaining three holes. Heading in to hole number 18, Rocco still had the slim lead. But Tiger Woods could only be held down for so long. Tiger made par on hole 18, and Mediate made bogey. So at the end of 90 holes of golf, still there was no victor. One more hole was needed to make that decision. And so, in the waning hours of daylight, they moved back to hole number seven - a par 4 – for one more hole; a sudden death, winner-take-all playoff. Mediate had not made any better than par on hole seven all week, and had bogeyed the hole in round number one. Tiger had birdied all but once. Things did not look well for the likeable underdog from Pennsylvania. Rocco finished the hole first, and after a few errant shots, the pressure had gotten the best of him and he finished with a bogey. Tiger played his game, knowing he only needed to make par, and executed.
Tiger Woods had gone 91 holes on a broken leg and torn ACL to become the 2008 US Open Champion. He described it as his “best win ever,” and there was no doubt that it was truly one of the greatest spectacles in golf. It was a true showing of the mental and physical perseverance it takes to play at such a high level. Whether Tiger Woods will continue his dominance of the golf world will remain to be seen, but there is one thing that every golf fan knows for sure: No matter what happens in the future, Tiger Woods has cemented himself among the greatest figures in sports history; becoming not just a figure of greatness, but an icon and a legend.