He has already produced countless moments of utter golfing brilliance in his career but Tiger Woods conjured up yet another at Torrey Pines to force a 18 hole play-off on Monday morning with compatriot Rocco Mediate to decide the fate of the 2008 US Open Championship.
With Mediate in the clubhouse at one under par 283 after an excellent closing 71 and Lee Westwood’s brave attempt having ended agonisingly one stroke shy of that mark, Woods faced a testing downhill 15 footer on the 18th green for a birdie four to join his fellow countryman.
On the same putting surface where he holed an audacious 30 footer for eagle three to end the third round on Saturday, Woods’ effort rolled to the side of the cup before dropping in to send the crowds in the packed grandstands absolutely wild with delight.
It was yet another example of the World Number One’s resilience under pressure and his absolute and utter refusal to accept defeat for, once again, he did not play well in the round itself. Obviously still suffering the after effects of his knee surgery two months ago, he dropped three shots in his first two holes and his final round 73 was his worst score of the week.
Nevertheless, there has rarely been a golfer with such a thirst for Major Championship success and when the ball dropped out of sight into the cup, Woods’ dream of notching his 14th Major title, to move within four of Jack Nicklaus’ record, remained alive.
“The putt on the 18th was probably about two and a half balls outside the right of the cup,” said Woods. “The green wasn’t very smooth and I just kept telling myself to at least make a pure stroke so if it bounces out or whatever, at least I can hold my head up and say I put the best stroke on it as possible.
“But when I hit it, I hit it exactly where I wanted to and it went in. I’m looking forward to it tomorrow very much. I’ve never been in this position before in a US Open and after the start I had, it looked like I could play myself right out of the tournament.
“But the good thing is that I still have a chance going into tomorrow. I kept telling myself after I started that if I could somehow shoot level par I’d still win the tournament and that would have been the number. Having said that, I’m fortunate to get into the play-off as well as Roc could have easily birdied 18 to put it out of reach for both Lee and I.”
Mention of Westwood is appropriate because, in all the furore, it was hard not to feel sympathy for the Englishman who had stood toe to toe with Woods all day and who led the European Tour challenge commendably over the week.
Like Woods, he did not play his best golf in the heat of the final round and his matching 73 was also his poorest return of the four days, his earlier rounds having been the more consistent figures of 70-71-70.
But, like the World Number One, Westwood showed courage and determination to battle back after things went awry in the middle of the tension-packed final round and he shed shots at the tenth, 12th and 13th to fall from the lead back to third.
Bravely pulling the driver from the bag at the driveable 14th, the 18 time European Tour champion found the green with his tee shot and two putted for a birdie three to get back within a shot of leader Mediate.
Par figures followed at the 15th and 16th before he looked to be in trouble at the 17th when his approach shot found the greenside bunker. Having splashed out to eight feet, the stalwart of four winning European Ryder Cup Teams then bravely holed out for par, clutching his hand to his fast beating heart as the ball eventually dropped in.
He knew he needed a birdie four at the last to attain the one under par mark set by Mediate but when he bunkered his drive to the right of the fairway, that task was immediately harder. Having played out short of the putting surface, he pitched to 20 feet but when his birdie putt pulled up short of the hole, the dream of his first Major Championship was over.
“It’s sickening not to be in the play-off tomorrow but all in all I played pretty good all week and if somebody said at the start of the week that I was going to have a chance from 20 feet for a play-off, I’d have probably taken that,” he said. “I’m delighted with how my short game held up under pressure and I am pleased with myself. I felt pretty calm out there, a little bit nervous, a few butterflies, but I thought I stuck in there well. It is just very fine margins in the end.
“It is my first real attempt at being in contention to win a Major and so to come up one short and to have a chance at the play-off at the last was pretty good. The only thing I was disappointed all day about was the swing on my second shot at the 13th where I hooked it into the hazard there. But apart from that, I thought I played pretty good, in fact pretty great all week.
“After I made the three bogeys I knew I still wasn’t out of it and I had to keep telling myself that. I had made a couple of mistakes but a lot can happen over the last few holes and it normally does. However, I am far more convinced I can now win a Major than when I arrived here at the start of the week.”
As Westwood returns home, Mediate will somehow have to regroup and fine some inner strength to challenge the World Number One in a shootout he deep down hoped was not going to happen.
“I have nothing left right now, I’m toast,” said the 45 year old. “Today was the most amazing day’s golf I have ever experienced. Tomorrow is going to be pretty amazing too but today was absolutely remarkable.
“I’ve never been there like that before and I’ve just found out what it is all about,” added the man whose fifth US PGA Tour title came six years ago in the Greater Greensboro Classic. “It doesn’t matter how you get in, you’ve just got to get in and trust what you’ve worked on all your life.
“There is no technical thing going on in a day like that, it’s all about trying to get the ball to go where you want it to go. It’s amazing. But the most amazing thing is that the guy I’m going to face tomorrow has won 13 of these – I mean how much does that take? I gave everything today and I can’t complain – but I just knew he was going to make that putt.”
Ironically, of course, if he can repeat his form of a remarkable Sunday then he will win his first Major Championship, for his final round 71 – which featured three birdies and three bogeys – was two shots better than both Westwood and Woods.
However, not many people around this delightful part of southern California believe that will be the case with Woods readily available at 1/4 on with bookmakers while Mediate’s odds are generally around 11/4.
Outside the top three, it proved another superb week for Sweden’s Robert Karlsson who ended it in style with birdies at the 17th and 18th for a closing 71 and a share of fourth place with American D J Trahan on two over par 286.
“I am pretty happy with the way I’m playing right now, that’s for sure,” said the man who, before this week, finished third-third-third-second in his last four European Tour outings. “I have had a great run of tournaments and I have been playing really well so I am very happy with things.
“I think the set-up here has been fantastic. I’ve played five US Opens before and I haven’t played well in them and perhaps I am a little bit biased towards this week because I’ve done well but this course is fantastic. They’ve mixed up the tee positions and the pin locations and as a result I’ve really really enjoyed it. It has been a fantastic week.”
As the dust settled, 22 European Tour Members played all four rounds with, outside Westwood and Karlsson, the best performances coming from Sweden’s Carl Pettersson and Miguel Angel Jiménez of Spain who shared sixth place on three over par 287 after respective closing rounds of 68 and 72.