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U.S. Open | Playoff

Playing in grand pain, U.S. Open might become Tiger's most grand moment.

SAN DIEGO — You come in search of context. Some way to explain what you have seen.

You stand nearby the final hole and listen as a crowd cheers exhaustively. Cheers for the winner, cheers for the loser, cheers for their own good fortune as witnesses to history.

You look closely at the golfer now holding a trophy and consider what he has done. Medically, emotionally, competitively. And you realize the man had no business being here.

So write it down, Tiger Woods has won another U.S. Open.

And there may never be a finer moment in his career.

"Just incredible," his swing coach Hank Haney said. "The greatest performance I've ever seen."

On the 91st hole, in the 105th hour of the U.S. Open, Woods stood and watched as Rocco Mediate failed to make par on the first hole of sudden death following an 18-hole playoff. And so a tournament that was defined by one remarkable shot after another finally ended with a putt that wouldn't fall.

The record will show this was Woods' 14th major championship, putting him four away from Jack Nicklaus. It will show this was his 65th PGA Tour victory, putting him 17 away from Sam Snead.

What the record will fail to show is exactly what it took to get here.

By now, you know Woods had knee surgery in April and had not played a competitive round of golf in nearly two months. You may know he had not even attempted to walk 18 holes before the first round of the Open on Thursday.

But you should also know his doctor recommended he not play because there was a chance he could cause further damage to his left knee. You should also know, the way the knee feels now, he may skip next month's British Open.

"I think I need to shut it down for a little bit here," Woods said. "It's a bit sore."

The knee is one thing, the heart is another.

If this tournament taught us anything, it is that Woods is not the infallible machine he sometimes seems to be. He hit terrible shots throughout the five rounds, including three double bogeys on the first hole, but always recovered.

He blew leads on the back nine in both Sunday's final round and Monday's playoff, yet caught Mediate with do-or-die birdies on No. 18 on both days.

He left the course each day knowing his next few hours would be filled with ice packs and anti-inflammatories, but never considered the possibility that he wouldn't be back for more.

"If anybody in this world goes up against Tiger when he's at his best, they are going to lose. It's that simple," Mediate said. "Was he at his best this week? He was pretty good, but obviously he's hurt.

"I told (caddie Matt Achatz), 'This guy is impossible. You can't get him.' I thought I had him. I kept hitting good shot after good shot after good shot, and so did he. He's who he is. There's nothing else to say."

At least not until he wins four more majors. Catching Nicklaus may not be inevitable, but you might consider some Tiger-themed parties around the time of the U.S. Open in 2011.

Nicklaus was 35 when he won his 14th major and was in the final year or two of his prime. Tiger is 32 and seemingly getting stronger. He has finished first or second in seven of his last eight majors.

At this point, the greater upset would be if he does not make it to 18 majors.

"Being only four back, it's hard to believe I'm in this situation," Woods said. "It's hard to believe I've had this nice a run in my career."

And it's harder still to believe he walked away with this championship. He was supposed to play the Memorial two weeks ago as a tune-up but had to skip it. Haney wanted him to walk a couple of rounds to test the knee last week, but Woods would go no farther than nine holes a day.

He grimaced in obvious pain a number of times after swings and was walking with a limp by the end of every round. His greatest fear was a ball in a downhill lie that would have required him to put most of his weight on his left leg, but Woods somehow avoided that in 358 shots on the longest course in U.S. Open history.

Two years ago, Woods came into the U.S. Open following another long layoff after his father Earl died. Like this one, the tournament's fourth round was on Father's Day, and a Woods victory would have been one of golf's great moments.

Instead, Woods didn't make the cut.

In 46 career majors, it is the only time he has failed to make a cut.

This time around, Woods is a father himself. His daughter Sam, decked out in red sneakers in honor of dad's choice of championship colors, has her first birthday tomorrow.

Still, Tiger remains his father's son. If you had any doubt, you needed only listen as the voice drifted softly from the television, the sound of another generation. Earl Woods captured in a commercial, telling stories of his only son:

"I said, 'Tiger, I promise you that you'll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life. And he hasn't, and he never will."

In this case, Earl Woods may have been biased.

But I can't say he was wrong.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Playing in grand pain, U.S. Open might become Tiger's most grand moment. 06/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 8:21am]

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