Sunday, June 15, 2008

The 19th Hole: What a Tie at the Open Means

That query was made thousands of times on the Internet – particularly on Google – this evening during coverage of the US Open Championship from Torrey Pines. How do I know? My blog was the beneficiary of plenty of hits from inquiring minds wanting to know what would happen in the event of a tie after 72 holes at Torrey. The answer is what we will see on Monday.

Tomorrow, starting at about 9am Pacific time, the world’s greatest player Tiger Woods will take on Rocco Mediate, ranked 158th in the world. Just in case you are not familiar, Woods will be vying for his 14th major championship and his third in a playoff. In the two prior occasions in which Woods has faced overtime, he has come out victorious.

Most recently, he did so in 2005 when Woods had the chip-in of the century amidst a tough battle with Chris DiMarco. In the end, though, Woods’ putter did the talking and he won his fourth green jacket.

The other playoff was against another relative unknown in Bob May. He was the last man to force Tiger Woods to birdie the 72nd hole to extend his quest for a major championship. May, a long time journeyman player on the European Tour, held his own with Tiger Woods even into a playoff. Eventually, though, he succumbed to time and destiny at Valhalla in the 2000 PGA Championship.

Now, Woods will take on Rocco Mediate. Mediate last won on the PGA Tour in 2002 in Greensboro at what is now the Wyndham Championship. He has a handful of PGA Tour wins in total. The last – and really only – time he ever seriously contended for a major championship was the 2006 Masters. It was then that the problem that has plagued his career, an erratic back, caused him to fade away before Phil Mickelson ultimately won his second green jacket.

Last season, he began the year as a commentator on the Golf Channel’s coverage of the PGA Tour. Part way through the year, he got his game and his life in order and came back to the Tour as a player. By the end of the year, he had made more than a million dollars and finished at 65th on the money list. The guy is a hell of a golfer.

He is also a hell of a person. Given the pressure of this situation – in the championship that he wants to win more than any other – Mediate was the absolute coolest customer. Honestly, he looked like a man who was playing a four ball scramble at his club that just happened to have 50,000 onlookers that day. He was smiling and having fun, both of which are not generally synonymous with the US Open. The measure of his inner peace was best expressed after he holed out for par on 18 to become the first man in four years to finish the US Open under par. He simply looked at his caddy and said that was the best he could do. It certainly was, and he looked more than satisfied.

Tiger Woods, though, was the total opposite of Mediate. He looked hurt, stressed, and angry throughout the day. The best player in the world was cussing like a sailor and throwing golf clubs. The man was frustrated that it could all be slipping away from him – another chance to get closer to Jack Nicklaus.

It was in stark contrast to his own utter disbelief during his Saturday round for the ages. The knee was clearly bothering him in terms of pain and how it may have limited his play. He blocked the ball. He hooked it badly. Woods missed putts that we would normally consider perfect for his stamp. Had they only counted the best twelve holes, Woods should have lost the US Open. Still, somehow, Woods summoned enough to match Rocco Mediate. With a scintillating scramble birdie on the 72nd hole, Woods ensured an 18 hole showdown.

The tee time tomorrow morning could not feature a larger contrast in Woods and Mediate. It is the battle of a man with absolutely nothing to lose and a man who has no time to lose in catching history. A win tomorrow for one could mean retirement – Mediate has said as much half-seriously – and for Woods it would just mean another notch on the belt. Rocco will enjoy every single second of the experience tomorrow and Woods will probably only truly enjoy the experience in retrospect, and only if he wins.

For any fan that can watch tomorrow, they will have two clear choices and rooting interests. There is the everyman in Mediate, from a small town in Pennsylvania (that I have been in and am getting to know), and someone who loves this process. Then there is the man that has done everything there is to do, yet still found a way to surprise us with his final three rounds this weekend. It is quite the tale of the tape.

No matter the result tomorrow, this US Open will go down as one of the greatest in history. It is not only because of the amazing combination of golf played, but because of the people involved. This game is nothing without the characters that make it such a dramatic experience. Tomorrow, rightfully so, two of the game’s greatest characters will be rewarded with the stage and, for one, our national championship.

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