LA JOLLA, Calif. - Tiger Woods' fairway shakes with the roar for a golfer on another hole. "Rocco! Rocco! Rocco!" the rollicking, giddy, purely joyful chant cascades like a wave from No. 18 back to where sports greatest closer stalks up 17.
How many times has he heard them cheer for another like this?
Moments later, Woods stops just before he's about to putt on 17, to let another run of "Rocco! Rocco! Rocco!" pass.
How many times has he had to step back from a putt because of someone else's roar?
Tiger Woods looks annoyed, on a day that grates on him like an endless loop of Michael Bolton's greatest hits. The best golfer in history is just trying to hold himself together, to muddle through and keep that 14th major within his grasp. The classic back-nine blitz from Friday and the crazy, mad magic of Saturday are but memories on this Father's Day, replaced by a man in red who cannot hit a putt.
Back on No. 15, after another miss, Woods gets angrier with his putter than most people ever even get at their spouse. He fake motions like he's going to fling it, but this is no golf comedy bit. No one in the packed grandstand dares chuckle at that road-rage glare. Even Tiger's caddie Steve Williams inches a little farther away, knowing when it's best to give the boss his distance.
Tiger Woods cannot make a putt on the final day of a major. Until - until 18, until he absolutely has to.
With Rocco Mediate staring at one of the most improbable U.S. Open titles ever, with the Superman finisher having found a kryptonite that has nothing to do with his knee and everything to do with his accuracy, Tiger hits it again - 13 feet on the poa grass greens that are unpredictable except when Tiger's putting to force another day.
That moment - in what, let's be real, was a clinking, clunker of a final round Sunday for the most dominant golfer in history - reveals Tiger Woods' true greatness. Sure, the illusionist shots from Saturday night feed the YouTube buzz, but it's the pulling out the one, gorilla-sized, gut-check dagger on a day that really never should have been his that truly sets Woods apart.
"I knew he was going to make the putt," Mediate said, laughing, having watched it go in on a TV screen like millions of other people. "That's what he does."
That's what he does, because no one else hits one of these putts first. It would have only taken one really good shot to drop a wobbly Woods this Sunday.
Playing with Tiger, Lee Westwood gets the first chance on the par-3 eighth. He's within 8 feet for birdie. He's one decent putt from a two-stroke lead over Tiger.
Woods is playing bad, swinging wild, muttering to himself, shooting angry stares at Westwood's ball on the green. If it drops, who knows what happens? It doesn't. Westwood's chance at the moment is gone.
Rocco Mediate, the man who's eliciting some of the most genuinely happy chants you've ever heard in golf this U.S. Open, gets a chance at 18, playing it before Woods. But the man who seems so loose plays it safe, laying up on a 527-yard par 5 that's absolutely set up for eagle.
If Rocco figured Tiger was going to birdie later, why didn't he go for it? Heck, Tiger hit a hideously ugly second shot on 18 and still birdied the 72nd hole. What's Rocco thinking?
You get one chance to beat Tiger Woods in one of these moments. And it's not coming for Mediate in the 18-hole playoff this morning.
Mediate wears all black on this Sunday, but his hulking belt buckle is a peace sign. The dichotomy of those two images comes out in the way he plays 18.
"Maybe I'll come out with a Metallica or an AC/DC belt buckle tomorrow," Mediate says. "To get all nasty and mean."
It's a nice line, but everyone knows who's going to do the crushing on Monday. You don't get a second chance to step out of the way of a speeding bus, a crashing plane or a major-seeking Tiger Woods.
When people desperately want to knock Tiger Woods, they usually come out with a "he's a frontrunner" tag. Think about that supposed diss again, though. Frontrunner is actually one of the greatest compliments in golf. How different would Greg Norman's legacy be if he could have been even just a halfway capable frontrunner? How gloriously would Phil Mickelson sleep if he could have only effectively frontrunned that 18th hole at Winged Foot?
Golf more than any other sport, is where playing from ahead looms as the ultimate test of skill and nerve. Woods shows this on a day when he just cuts and pastes together a 2-over 73 as everyone else falls around him. Sometimes literally.
On the fourth hole, a lady faints in the grandstand just as Woods and Westwood reach the green. There's a call for a doctor, a pause as one runs over and then a chorus of shout outs of "Down in front!"
Compassion, apparently, has its limits when there's a chance to catch a glimpse of the man in red live. Tiger certainly isn't going to check to see how Rocco is feeling this morning or waste any time on consoling Westwood, one shot short of making it a three-way Monday.
They're giving him an Open when he's not at his best, when he cannot stop double-bogeying the first hole, when he cannot help following Westwood along to the edge of the cliff on 13.
"The impressive thing about Tiger is that when he's not playing well, he's still going to do something to give himself a chance," says Westwood, who now must live with the knowledge he hit the ball much better than Tiger Woods from tee to green on a major Sunday and still lost his chance.
Woods will come out this morning on the same pain medication that made the grimaces dial back significantly Sunday. He'll see only one man in his way. You can be bet he won't care about the belt buckle.
"There's no one else I have to worry about," Tiger says simply.
Woods' worries are gone, replaced by the realization he played bad, handed out free trophy-shots and, still, he made the moment.
They roared for another. Don't count on much more.
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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