Fergus Bisset looks back at the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines when Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate played 91 holes to decide the fate of the trophy. Woods was defying a broken leg, Mediate was defying all logic
At the Buick Invitational in January 2008, Tiger Woods blew the field away at Torrey Pines in San Diego. He won by eight shots to claim a fourth-straight victory in the event. He had won seven times in eight starts and was so far ahead at the top of the world rankings, he had double the points of anybody else. He was as dominant as at any point in his career and, with June’s US Open set to return to one of Tiger’s happiest hunting grounds, it looked like there could be only one winner.
Rocco Mediate would probably have agreed. The 43-year-old journeyman had been struggling with his game and, although he had retained playing rights on the PGA Tour for 2008, he hadn’t made a cut on the circuit since September 2007. There would be no change at the Buick Invitational; he missed the cut comfortably with a second round of 77. He was two over through two rounds, 14 behind Woods. Who would have guessed that these would be the two men left standing in an epic battle for the US Open at the same venue five months later?
It seemed even more fanciful when Tiger went for knee surgery after finishing second at The Masters. With the US Open only 58 days away, his participation was doubtful.
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Mediate’s participation was doubtful too, mainly because he hadn’t qualified to play. He would try to earn a start at Torrey Pines via sectional qualifying in Columbus, Ohio on the Monday after Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament. The Memorial gave Mediate cause for optimism, as he battled through testing conditions to finish in a tie for sixth – his best result of the year by some distance. But US Open qualifying was going to be tough. A field of 140 players gathered for the 36-hole event, with just 23 places available. Those trying to secure a spot in Columbus included Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Jesper Parnevik and Chad Campbell.
After the two rounds, Mediate was four-under and in a tie for 17th with ten other players. Eleven men and seven spots meant a play-off. It wouldn’t be the last Rocco would face in the 2008 US Open. Showing great nerve, Mediate made it through with a birdie at the first extra hole. He was going to California. He would play the US Open.
So would Tiger Woods. The World No.1 decided he had recovered sufficiently from his April surgery. And, despite also suffering from a stress fracture in his leg, (a fact the public wasn’t aware of at the time), he was going to play. This was a course he loved and a fantastic chance to claim a 14th Major title.
Woods started inauspiciously, with a double bogey on his first hole. He was pretty wild throughout the first round and there was speculation a weakened knee had something to do with it. The fact he was clearly in pain, frequently wincing after shots, added weight to that theory. He posted a one-over-par 72.
Mediate was a non-story coming into the tournament, but a first round of 69 meant he was just one off the lead in a tie for third. The press began to take an interest, but only in cursory fashion. After the round Mediate was asked a couple of questions, one of which was whom he considered favourite. The fact Mediate’s answer was “Tiger Woods”, says something about how he viewed his own chances at that stage.
Leading after round one were two unknowns – Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman. The former had come through qualifying with Mediate, the latter was a PGA Tour rookie who had struggled for years on the mini tours. It was a brief taste of the limelight for both men that year. They fell away and, although both made the cut, they ended the tournament outside of the top 50.
Woods was visibly in pain through round two and, after a front nine of 38, it seemed he was playing himself out of the reckoning. But he roared back on his run for home. He made five birdies for a round of 68. It left him just one shot behind leader Stuart Appleby, tied with Sweden’s Robert Karlsson and, incredibly, the world number 158 Mediate.
He may have been struggling for form, he may have lacked the power of some of the younger men, but Rocco had no fear and nothing to lose. Plus he had past experience of success in his national open – he’d been fourth in 2001 and sixth in 2005.
When asked about Tiger, he was up for the fight: “Whether you win or lose, you get to go up against the best, that’s what I like.”
In round three, Woods started with double bogey again and he turned in 37. His back nine, though, was typical Tiger. He eagled the 13th, chipped in on 17 then holed a monster putt on the final green for another eagle.
“That was the freakiest round I’ve ever seen,” said playing partner Karlsson. Woods carded a 70 to take the lead, but his limp was getting worse.
Mediate kept himself in the picture with a decent round of 72 and would play in the second-to-last pairing on Sunday, together with 2006 champion Geoff Ogilvy. It was England’s Lee Westwood who would partner Tiger in the final group on Sunday, the Englishman having posted a 70 to end Saturday one back.
Westwood led after nine holes of the final round but stumbled at the start of the back nine to fall behind. He was unable to get back on terms, although he did have a putt on the final green to do so. He couldn’t make it though and finished one behind.
Mediate moved to the top of the board when Tiger bogeyed the 15th. The veteran parred in to set a clubhouse total of one-under-par. Could he do it? This unorthodox 43-year-old, a relatively short hitter with only just over $200,000 in season’s earnings… Was he seriously about to beat the World No.1 who, despite the injury, seemed in a different league to this affable chap from Pennsylvania?
Johnny Miller summed it up, somewhat controversially, while commentating on NBC: “Can someone called Rocco actually beat Tiger Woods in the US Open? I mean he looks more like he should be taking care of Tiger’s pool.”
It was a touch harsh, but most got his gist. This was the game’s greatest player, one of the top sportsmen on earth, about to lose to a rather unathletic 40-something who looked like he was out playing a Sunday knockabout rather than a Major championship.
But, when Tiger played a poor second from a fairway bunker on the par-5 last into rough, it looked like happening. Woods needed birdie and, from the lie he had, that was going to be tough. But this was Tiger Woods, and he blasted a shot with his lob wedge that somehow stopped just 12 feet from the pin.
After Westwood had missed his putt to tie with Mediate, Tiger stalked his own: there was no evidence of a sore leg at this point, he was utterly focused. He set the ball rolling. It never deviated – straight into the cup. Tiger punched the air in one of the most animated celebrations we’ve ever seen from him.
When asked whether he thought Tiger would make that putt, a disappointed Westwood answered: “He always makes them, doesn’t he? So, yeah.”
There was to be an 18-hole play-off between the most talented golfer in the world and a man ranked outside the top 100 on the PGA Tour money list. Surely reality would bite on Monday and Woods would walk it. Not quite… he was struggling to walk after all.
Tiger looked to have it in the bag through ten holes of the play-off – three shots ahead. But Rocco clawed it back and levelled the scores through the 14th. On the 15th Mediate then drained a birdie putt that hit the back of the cup at such pace it almost leapt in the air before disappearing. Woods missed and Rocco was one ahead. It remained that way until the par-5 18th. Just like in regulation play, Woods would need to birdie the 18th. He would also need Rocco to fail to do likewise.
Woods hit a belting drive and his second to within 35 feet of the cup. Rocco was unable to get up and down having laid up with his second and, when Woods two-putted, both men had scored 71. There was to be a play-off to settle the play-off.
This took place on the 7th hole and that wasn’t good news for Rocco. It’s a long dogleg left to right and Mediate hits a high draw. Woods played a good drive into the fairway and Mediate found a bunker down the left side. His second continued to track down the left of the hole and ended up against a grandstand. Woods played calmly to the front of the green. Rocco pitched on and watched as Tiger rolled his birdie putt to the hole edge and tapped in for par. Mediate faced a 20-footer to keep going. It missed and the fairy tale was over.
Tiger hugged Stevie Williams then offered his hand to Rocco. Mediate was having none of that, though, and threw his arms around Tiger. The World No.1 hugged him back. It had been one hell of a contest. Tiger, broken and occasionally wild but determined beyond belief against Rocco, embracing the moment and playing out of his skin. For Tiger it was a 14th Major title – another victory; for Mediate it was an experience he will never forget.
Walking down the fairway of the first sudden-death hole, when it looked likely he would lose, Rocco skipped up to Mike Davis of the USGA, put his arm around his shoulder and said: “I can’t tell you how much fun I’m having out here.” How cool is that?