SAN DIEGO — Arms folded across his chest, Rocco Mediate stared at a small, square television to see if his life was about to change forevermore.
Mediate stood in a low-slung nondescript area behind the 18th hole grandstand at the Torrey Pines Golf Course, a space so cramped he ducked his head to avoid wires hanging from the ceiling. He could not see the 18th green, where minutes earlier, he had made par to take a one-stroke lead in the fourth round of the 2008 United States Open.
Mediate, ranked 158th in the world at the time, was trying to become the oldest man, at 45, to win the event. He paced nervously, cleats crackling on the bare concrete floor as the image of Tiger Woods appeared on TV.
Woods, playing without an anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and with stress fractures in his left tibia, had a 12-foot birdie putt to tie Mediate and send the championship to an 18-hole playoff the next day.
Usually garrulous, Mediate was silent as Woods stroked his putt, the ball taking hops across the bumpy surface, traveling at a hopscotch cadence that seemed certain to send the putt offline. But the golf ball tickled the edge of the hole and toppled in.
“Of course he made it,” Mediate said with a chortle, turning to two nearby reporters. “He’s Tiger Woods.”
Half grinning and half sighing, he looked away adding: “He’s Tiger Woods. Of course.”
Except it would not be that simple. What felt like the end of Mediate’s time in the spotlight turned out to be the beginning. And what felt like a renewal of triumphs for Woods instead was the high-water mark of his 11-year sprint to 14 major titles. Soon enough, for Woods, nothing would be the same again.
As the U.S. Open returns to Torrey Pines for the first time since that tournament, when Woods eventually vanquished Mediate after 19 extra holes in a last-of-its-kind Monday playoff, the 2008 championship is a revered golf keepsake — when Woods was a shimmering Goliath at the peak of his powers and a rumpled David whose nickname was “Rock” almost overcame his fearsome rival.
The memory, the last major title for Woods until he won the 2019 Masters, is particularly poignant this year because Woods can’t play in the event after sustaining severe leg injuries in a February car crash. Still in rehabilitation, Woods recently said his chief goal was to walk on his own.
But 13 years ago Woods was at his best, and so was Mediate, and the two are eternally linked.
“Great fight,” Woods, who looked exhausted, said to Mediate as the two hugged on the final green. “The best of my major championships.”
Mediate, who was disappointed but happy, answered: “It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing golf with somebody, let alone against the greatest golfer in the world.”
Five days earlier, the tournament had begun with Woods’s caddie, Steve Williams, imploring him to withdraw.
Fourteen holes into his first round, Woods, whose shattered knee had prevented him from walking or playing golf for the previous six weeks, was one over par and spraying shots far and wide. “You’ve got many more years to win majors,” Williams said to Woods, who was 32. Woods cursed and said: “I’m winning the tournament.”
Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson played the first two rounds of the 2008 championship with Woods and suspected there was more wrong with his knee than the “soreness” that Woods had blamed for his layoff.
“Tiger looked more uncomfortable than I had ever seen him,” Scott said in an interview this month. “But I don’t know that the crowd noticed. They were going crazy with Tiger and Phil, two California kids, playing on a public golf course in their home state. It was pretty much mayhem out there.”
After nine holes in the second round, Woods had slumped to three over par and was in danger of missing the cut, but he rallied to birdie five of the next nine holes, shooting a spectacular 30 on the second nine.
“He flipped the switch and I remember thinking, ‘Here goes Tiger doing something special — something Tiger-esque — again,’” Scott said.
Paired with Robert Karlsson in the third round, Woods often bent over in pain after tee shots and kept tumbling down the leaderboard. On the tee at the par-5 13th, his drive was so far right it came to rest near portable toilets that were far from the fairway.
“Tiger was aiming way left off every tee and hitting big slices, because that’s how he kept from putting too much weight on his injured left knee on the downswing,” Karlsson said in an interview this month.
Woods’s recovery flew to the back of the green, 65 feet from the hole atop a steep pitch. On the same devilish green that day, Mickelson had three-putted and spun three consecutive wedge shots off the green for a quadruple-bogey 9.
Woods sank the 65-footer for an eagle. “Tiger-mania was full on at that point,” Karlsson said. “That was an impossible putt. Impossible.”
The 15th hole was a dogleg left, and required a right-to-left draw off the tee, not the purposeful slice Woods had been hitting. Woods would have to put considerable weight on his damaged left knee. He told Karlsson and their caddies that after he swung they should just walk off the tee without him.
“Tiger then hit this fantastic, piercing draw in the middle of the fairway, but he doubled over after it, leaning on his club to stay upright,” Karlsson said. “He was hyperventilating. He knew that swing was going to hurt like mad, but he committed to it anyway.”
“We all walked off the tee quickly like he asked and when we got to the fairway, we looked back and he was still on the tee.”
Consecutive pars and a lucky chip-in at the 17th hole for birdie — the ball clanged off the flagstick about a foot off the ground and fell into the hole — led to a 30-foot eagle putt on the 18th green that Woods converted for a round of 70. The surge gave him the tournament lead at three under par, two strokes ahead of Mediate, who was in third place.
Walking the 18th hole, Karlsson asked Williams if he thought Woods would be able to play in Sunday’s final round. “Stevie said he thought it was 50-50,” Karlsson said.
Woods made it to Sunday but was three over par for the first two holes. Mediate shot 71 to take the lead by one stroke. Woods steadily rescued par after par to stay in contention and at the par-5 final hole hit a magnificent third shot from the rough to set up the birdie attempt that would send the championship to a playoff after 72 holes.
In the last 13 years, Mediate has watched a replay of the putt hundreds of times. “No one else makes that putt,” he said. “No one.”
Scott has often been asked by young golfers what it was like to play with Woods in his prime. He cites the last putt of the fourth round at Torrey Pines in 2008.
“The young guys can’t quite understand why we all say he was so much better than everybody else,” Scott said. “That putt, while it’s not the longest he ever made, pretty much sums what had happened for 10 years.”
The following day, in the 18-hole playoff, it was Mediate who fell behind by three strokes after 10 holes, but he was buoyed by a crowd drawn to his everyman status.
“Go get ’em, Rock,” fans called out after his tee shots.
Mediate, a good but not great PGA Tour player for more than two decades, fought back with three consecutive birdies to take a one-stroke lead. As he did the previous day, Woods birdied the 18th hole, while Mediate made par to send the playoff to sudden death extra holes.
At that moment, the PGA Tour pro Kevin Streelman was on a plane taking golfers and their families to Connecticut, where the Travelers Championship would be played that week. In the air, everyone watched the playoff on television, and the jet landed as Woods and Mediate were headed to a 19th hole. There were courtesy cars on the tarmac waiting to drive the players to their hotels. No one got off the aircraft.
Every Cinderella story has a midnight and Mediate’s tee shot on par-4 No. 7 found a bunker. His approach shot missed the green, and a pitch from the rough was well short of the hole. Woods made a routine par, and Mediate missed a lengthy par putt.
Woods walked toward Mediate to shake his hand, and Mediate embraced Woods in a hug.
Two days later, Woods announced he would have season-ending surgery on his left leg. He returned in 2009 and stormed to six tour event victories but failed to win a major championship for the first year since 2004. And his year would worsen. The day after Thanksgiving, Woods had a car accident that led to revelations about his serial marital infidelities. For the next nine years, Woods, who won 14 of the 50 majors he played from 1997 to 2009, entered 24 majors and won none.
Mediate, who watched the last putt of Woods’s fourth round in 2008 wondering if he was about to get a life-altering victory, was himself changed by his defeat at the U.S. Open.
“I still get questions about it every single day,” Mediate said. “And my wife will go, ‘What?’ And I say that’s the way it is — they’re asking me a question about something they saw that meant something to them. It wasn’t like Joe’s Open, it was the United States Open. And it was a hell of a battle.”