It is difficult to put into words the magnitude of Tiger Woods’ performance this week at Torrey Pines. Regardless of whether or not he manages to overcome Rocco Mediate’s dogged resistance in the 18-hole playoff on Monday, Woods has contributed another remarkable chapter to the annals of golfing lore. Like something out of a Homeric Epic, the world number one defied the fates, his own body and a punishing course in single-minded pursuit of what at times must have seemed to be a very distant prize. If the mark of a great performance is the ability to triumph over adversity, then Tiger’s performance at the 108th US Open must rank as one of his finest.
Yes, Rocco Mediate’s fairytale performance was heart-warming from one of the game’s true characters. Yes, Lee Westwood’s valiant attempt was a welcome change from all-too-common Euro-meltdowns at the majors. But inevitably the 2008 U.S. Open was all about the Tiger. Woods had something of the self-destructive gunslinger about him, seemingly ready and willing to put his career in jeopardy for the chance of pulling off a famous victory. After every flinch inducing bash with the driver one couldn’t help but fear that Tiger was risking doing himself lasting damage.
Clearly the world’s greatest golfer’s return from his rehabilitation was extremely premature. Neither his game nor his body was really anywhere near up to the arduous task of a USGA event this soon after surgery and it’s fairly certain that Woods would’ve spent at least a few more weeks recuperating on the couch if a major hadn’t come along. The mind of a Tiger however is a force able to transcend the limitations of mere mortals. Butch Harmon commented that we had seen “no heroics from Tiger” midway through the back nine on the final day. Obviously Butch was speaking in comparison to the absurdities of the day before, but the fact that Woods was out there competing at all was heroic enough. His extraordinary final hole birdie to force a Monday playoff with Mediate was above and beyond.
For the uninitiated, golf may not seem like the type of sport that aggravates injuries and engenders pain. But attempting to swing a club at 130 miles per hour with a bum left-knee is the golfing equivalent of driving pedal to the metal with a punctured tyre. Strictly speaking it shouldn’t work. It took Ernie Els the best part of two years to recover from his own knee problems; Woods had given it 9 weeks. Disregarding the physical discomfiture, which professional sports-people play through each week, the technical issues created by being unable to transfer weight effectively to one’s front leg are ominous enough. One of the prerequisites for solid contact is a firm base resisting the torque of the swing, something Tiger simply didn’t have this week. As always though, the great man found a way to get the ball in the hole. It may have taken chip-ins, extraordinarily long eagle putts and a tendency to drive so wide as to miss the heaviest rough, but, as Arnold Palmer famously said, there are no pictures on the scorecard. At times it wasn’t pretty, even ragged. But it was never less than pure theatre, and entertainment of the very highest order. In fact the 108th U.S. Open provided more thrills and spills, more ‘how-did-he-do-that?!’ moments than any major in recent memory.
For all that, watching Tiger limp and wince his way around Torrey Pines on the weekend one couldn’t help feeling a few sympathy twinges oneself. Peter Oosterhuis commented on Friday that he wouldn’t have been surprised if Woods had walked in after his knee locked whilst playing his approach from the cart-path to his tenth hole of the day. Similar thoughts crossed many people’s minds after observing his tee-shot on the second on Sunday. Doubled over practically on all fours, Woods virtually crawled off the tee-box and limped down the fairway like a man twice his age. After a disastrous double-bogey on the first it hardly seemed as if he had a chance of lasting eighteen more holes. That was his fourth double of the week. The only other occasions on which Woods had made three or more double bogeys in a United States Open were at Winged Foot in 2006 and Congressional back in 1997. On both of those occasions he missed the cut. At this stage quite a few would have cut their losses and called it quits. In fact, I seriously doubt that any other professional golfer would have even turned up this week in Tiger’s condition. But Woods is not any other professional golfer.
Ben Hogan famously triumphed at the 1950 US Open whilst still enduring a slow and tortuous recovery from a horrific car crash. Doctors feared that Hogan might never walk again, but he defied such predictions. The Hawk managed to play through the pain barrier to record one of major golf’s most famous victories, an iconic moment of the sport captured for all time by Hy Peskin’s famous photo of Hogan’s 1-iron into Merion’s treacherous 18th. Woods’ bravery around Torrey Pines this week must have come close to matching the old master. Certainly Woods is one of very few players in the history of the game able to compare with Hogan for bloody-mindedness.
Once Woods made it the final nine holes, the pain from his knee, a constant companion all week, seemed to dissipate somewhat. In all likelihood the job in hand simply made him forget about it. The entire tournament had been one long display of mind over matter, and the mind took over completely for the closing stages. That the injury was still bothering him however was borne out by his decision to lay up on the 14th hole, which was playing a mere 265 yards from a forward tee. Most players were hitting 3-wood onto the green, but Woods chose conservatively to play an iron. Such a decision was so uncharacteristic of the man that one imagines it must have been one of his only concessions to the physical difficulty he was in.
The final putt (a downhill curling fifteen footer), remarkable though it was, was almost inevitable. Once the great man made it to the final green without collapsing, there was only one place that little white ball was going. Woods hadn’t endured four days of not insignificant pain to come away with second place.
After the rigours of this week, it would be very surprising if Woods was able to play again before the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in July. Indeed it has been quite feasibly speculated that he may only play the two remaining majors this year. Undoubtedly Woods’ decision to play this week has set back the process of recovery. If he manages to add a third US Open trophy to his already bulging cabinet tomorrow, it will no doubt a price he is more than happy to pay.