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Woods-Mediate a compelling battle in U.S. Open playoff

SAN DIEGO — One man is chasing history. The other is shooting for laughs.

One has a growing legend, the other has a receding hairline.

They are miles apart on golf's evolutionary scale, but for 18 holes this afternoon Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate will walk together in a playoff with the U.S. Open championship dangling between them.

The PGA Tour records are spotty in this regard, but it appears this will be the most ridiculous pairing of golfers since Judge Smails took on Al Czervik in Caddyshack.

You have Woods, who approaches the game with the precision and coolness of an assassin. And you have Mediate, who strolls through fairways as if he were applying for work as a casino greeter.

Woods has won 29 tournaments since 2003. Mediate has won none. Woods has won five majors since 2003. Mediate has made the cut in five majors. Woods came into the U.S. Open as the favorite in Las Vegas. Mediate had to survive a sectional qualifier two weeks ago to get an invitation.

And you know what? None of it matters.

Because some of the greatest moments in sports are the few seconds before an event begins and the impossible seems real. Just ask Buster Douglas. Or Eli Manning. Or the last kid picked for the soccer team.

"I'm playing against a monster," Mediate said. "I get to play against the best player who has ever played. And whatever happens, happens."

If it sounds improbable that a player ranked No. 158 in the world could take a major away from a player ranked No. 1, then you were not paying attention Sunday evening when Mediate outplayed Woods for the length of Torrey Pines.

Never before had Woods entered a major with a lead on Sunday and failed to walk away with the title. And it was the 45-year-old Florida Southern graduate who slowed Woods' march to history.

"This week has been a total dream," Mediate said. "Heck, I missed eight of the first 10 cuts I played this year on tour. Come on. Seriously."

A little over a year ago, Mediate was not even sure he would ever play competitive golf again. Back pain had cut short several seasons and had turned him from a consistent top-50 player into a guy looking for exemptions to get on courses. He was working as a television commentator when a physical therapist got him into a new conditioning program and alleviated a lot of his back problems.

Even so, Mediate's game has still been a work in progress. Two weeks ago, he wasn't even part of this field. Mediate was just another hopeful along with the college students and club pros trying to earn his way into the U.S. Open field playing 36 holes in a single day at a sectional qualifier in Ohio, then having to survive another sudden death hole.

"I'm up against all of these kids. There's 11 guys, and seven spots," Mediate said. "I'm 45 … and the rest were in their 20s. They're outdriving me by 50 yards on the first hole … as we walked off the tee I'm like, 'Come along children, let's go.' It was hilarious."

The fun has yet to stop for Mediate. He had the lead for a good portion of Saturday's third round before a meltdown on the back nine. He began Sunday two strokes behind Woods but was back in the lead by the third hole.

For the rest of the day, Woods, Mediate and Lee Westwood tossed the lead back and forth. Woods seemingly had the tournament in his grasp before getting greedy on No. 13, trying to reach the green in two shots. His second shot went horribly awry, and Mediate suddenly had regained the momentum.

Where Mediate has been mostly consistent, Woods has been playing from one extreme to another for four days. Yet he has made the big shots whenever necessary, including the 12-foot birdie on No. 18 to force the playoff.

Less than two months removed from knee surgery, Woods said his doctors recommended he skip the U.S. Open. Now, instead of 72 holes, his tournament has been expanded to 90. Can the knee hold up?

"It's going to have to," Woods said.

Woods has been here before and knows the pressure of winning a major. In a normal world, that would seem to be a huge advantage.

But Mediate doesn't necessarily reside in a universe with the rest of us. This is likely the last chance he will ever have to win a major, and he is intent on making it a good time instead of a chore.

Perhaps that's what got him here in the first place.

"I don't know, I'm nuts. I've always been that way," Mediate said. "I can't be quiet, that's for sure. But I obviously won't bother anybody, I don't do that either. … Tiger will talk a bit, I'm sure. He has no choice."

One is a chatterbox, the other is reserved.

One is middle-aged with a tricky back, the other is recovering from surgery.

Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods.

The old man and the knee.

Sounds like fun.

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

Woods-Mediate a compelling battle in U.S. Open playoff 06/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 5:43pm]
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