LA JOLLA, Calif. - Rocco Mediate reaches out to grab Tiger Woods into something of a giddy handshake/borderline half man hug. Everything with Rocco is giddy, touchy, feely. The No. 1 golfer in the world complies, but he adds a little message of steel to all the love.
"I guess we've got a little game (today), huh?" Woods says, smiling.
Just like that, in the beautiful late afternoon light of a Southern California Sunday, Woods laid down the gauntlet for this morning's 18-hole playoff for the U.S. Open. It took another "did you see that?" Tiger moment - really, the only one of the fourth round of the Torrey Pines Open - to force the playoff with Mediate. Woods birdied the 72nd hole of a major, hit a 13-footer on the bumpy poa greens after saving himself with a sand wedge from the rough grass on the shot before, to stretch the drama of this Open into today.
So, the man seeking to move within four majors of Jack Nicklaus' all-time record and an old golf man looking to give himself one of the biggest Cinderella upsets in all of sports, face off for 18 holes in the USGA's unique playoff system. It starts at 9 a.m. PST, but the mind games and the second thoughts began well before that.
Woods is the player swinging on a surgically repaired left knee, one that had him going to pain medication before Sunday's round. But after a wild fourth round finish, Mediate was the one who sounded absolutely spent.
"I left everything I had out there," Mediate said after shooting an even-par 71 that actually erased a two-shot lead Woods held over him after 54 holes. "I'll have to go out there and pick it all up and see what I can bring back (today)."
Woods hit the putt, but he admitted he needed some fortunate breaks. And not just from the poa. Mediate bogeyed 15 to go from 2-under to 1-under, where he and Woods both finished. He didn't birdie 18, a 527-yard par 5 that had many players at least thinking eagle.
"Rocco made a mistake there at 15, and he didn't birdie 18, so at least it gave Lee (Westwood) and myself a chance with one hole to go," Woods said.
Westwood, playing with Woods and tied with Woods at even-par for the tournament going into the 72nd hole, couldn't come up with the required birdie - after having left a ton of putts within 15 feet short all day. The world's No. 1 did despite a second shot that he hit fat, right, lame and woefully short.
Mediate could only watch. Even though Mediate was only one group ahead, he actually finished a good 20 minutes earlier than Woods and Westwood, who were slowed down by things like hitting matching far-left canyon shots on No. 13. Both Woods and Westwood had to take drops on that hole, which is indicative of the play for much of their matching 1-over 73 rounds.
Westwood even lost his golf ball.
"You don't think you could ever lose a golf ball playing with Tiger Woods," Westwood said, joking about all the people (and there were nearly 50,000 crammed into Torrey Pines Sunday) that wayward balls had to bounce off of. "We managed to, though."
Mediate managed to shoot the best round of the only three players who stood in real contention by the back nine - despite that bogey on 15 and the missed opportunity on 18. Whether he can post a better score than the already historic figure Mediate himself calls "a monster" for a second straight day is the question for today's playoff.
"Fairly much," Mediate cracked when someone asked how badly he wanted to win this Open. "It'd be the story of my life, I tell you. That's for sure."
Mediate is probably underselling his story. One of the most popular players in the often backstabbing, griping world of the PGA Tour's locker room, the man with the name fans love to chant found his playing future in doubt only last year. In fact, Mediate did some TV work during the 2007 season in hopes of setting himself up for a future gig.
This run at Torrey Pines South is pushing the future much farther ahead for Mediate, gray hair regardless.
"I'm going to get to play in the Masters next year," Mediate said, just moments after Tiger's putt rocked Torrey. "I'm going to get to come back here next year. I'm going to get to do a whole bunch of cool things because of this already.
It can seem like everyone in the free world cares about Tigers' left knee. Woods himself kept chalking up his wayward Sunday shots to "just terrible swings." But that didn't stop countless questions about the knee from golf writers.
When asked what his doctor said about the knee, Woods laughed and quickly answered, "Don't play golf."
Tiger and Rocco will be playing today, though, as this Open stretches to 90 holes for a most unlikely pairing. Woods' first order of business will be making sure he doesn't double bogey No. 1. He did that for the second time in this Open Sunday, making sure his 54-hole lead didn't last 55 holes.
For the tournament, Woods has played the par-4 first hole in 5 over. This for a hole that he handles rather easily in the Buick Invitational every year.
Of course, the birdie putt on 18, when anything less would have given the championship to Mediate, makes up for a lot of ills. People were not leaning against the balconies of the Torrey Pines Lodge that overlooks the green and climbing over each other into trees on No. 1 like they did 18.
"That's one of the worst parts of the green," Woods said of his position on 18. "It's so bumpy. It took forever to make that break, too. But it finally did."
So, the Open's not final.
When Woods added his tone-setter to that handshake hug, Mediate had a comeback.
"Yeah, I'll see you in the morning," he said, still holding onto Woods' hand. "I'll see you in the morning, big man."
Mediate's never at a loss for words. Today, though, he needs his shots too.
June 16, 2008
Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Davis Love III, who played the final 57 holes of the Children's Miracle Network Classic without a bogey, finished at 25-under 263 in the season-ending event played at the Walt Disney World Golf Resort in Florida. It has been a long road back for Love, who severely sprained his ankle late last year. After tearing ligaments, he needed surgery, and he's spent much of this year rehabilitating the injury.
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