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Tiger leads after third round of U.S. Open

SAN DIEGO

Sometimes, the legend grows. Sometimes, it hobbles.

And on one perfect Saturday evening at the U.S. Open, it did both.

Just when you thought you had seen his best, just when you thought you understood the breadth of his talent, Tiger Woods limped through a remarkable back nine at Torrey Pines and made you reconsider his legacy all over again.

"Completely out of his mind," said Rocco Mediate, who had held the lead for most of the third round. "The stuff he does, it's unreal."

This one is not about the numbers or the records. It matters not that a potential 14th victory in a major would get Woods another step closer to Jack Nicklaus and his hallowed 18.

This was more than that. It was Kirk Gibson hobbling off the bench. It was Willis Reed limping out of the locker room. It was Curt Schilling with the blood soaking through his sock.

Maybe that sounds overly dramatic, but then you have never come from behind while playing the longest course in U.S. Open history two months after knee surgery without a single full round of practice.

And no one else has either.

"He's the best that ever walked on grass, that played golf," Mediate said. "Whether he beats Jack's record or not, forget it. It's just the most amazing display of athletic, mental power that there is, that there ever was.

"Look at him: He hasn't played in 10 weeks."

We have seen him play for more than a dozen years and watched him separate himself from every golfer of his generation. We have anticipated him chasing down the legends of the sport until the day he will stand all alone.

But, until now, we have rarely seen Tiger look vulnerable.

He had earned respect. He had earned praise. He was a model of efficiency, focus and skill.

But Woods was also a distant superstar. Polite, but not warm. Accommodating, but not gregarious.

In the galleries at Torrey Pines on Saturday, it was as if the aura around him was shifting with every tortured step. This is Phil Mickelson's crowd, but they were falling in love with Tiger.

This was not the applause of a crowd watching a superstar in his prime. These were fans recognizing a broken hero. They were not just cheering Tiger, they were ready to embrace him.

By the time he reached the back nine Saturday, the drama was building with every hole. Woods would swing, grimace and limp down the fairway. His drives would land in the rough, in the crowd and even in a concession stand.

Yet every time it looked as if he was falling apart, Woods came up with another miracle.

A 45-foot putt from the fringe on No. 13. A chip out of the rough on No. 17 that bounced into the cup. A 25-foot putt for eagle on No. 18 that gave him the lead for the first time in the tournament.

It was like writing a script with one improbable scene leading to another.

And Tiger's reactions told the story better than words.

As the eagle putt was heading toward the hole on No. 13, he began walking backward, did a quick skip then lifted his fists in a double uppercut motion.

"I didn't feel the knee at that time," Woods grinned. "Didn't feel it at all."

When his pitch bounced onto the green and into the cup on No. 17, Woods dropped his head and pulled his hat over his face in laughter. He slapped hands with caddie Steve Williams, and then held on as Williams helped to pull him out of the rough near the bunker.

"A lot of luck involved," Woods said. "That had no business going in the hole. I hit it too hard."

Finally, when he took the lead on the final hole, Woods just grinned and raised a fist.

"On 13, I went nuts," Woods said. "On 18, I was just like, "Sweet.' "

For once, it is not Woods' golf skills that are most impressive. It is his determination. His focus. His tolerance for pain.

And his absolute refusal to use a crutch, either physically or metaphorically.

Other golfers in pain have long since withdrawn from this tournament. Sean O'Hair and Brett Wetterich pulled out before play began. Mark Calcavecchia and Ian Poulter walked away in the middle of their rounds.

Other golfers without pain have long since checked out mentally. Mickelson had a quadruple bogey on the 13th hole on Saturday. Mediate surrendered a three-stroke lead on the back nine.

And Tiger, with a slight limp and a huge appetite, just keeps coming.

He acknowledged the knee feels worse now than at the start of the tournament. And he is never quite sure which shot will result in pain. He is on medication and going through ice packs and whirlpool treatments every night.

"If the pain hits, it hits. So be it," Woods said. "It's just pain."

Machiavelli once pondered whether it was better to be loved or feared.

On this day, Tiger Woods is both.

Tiger leads after third round of U.S. Open 06/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 11:49am]
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