After one of modern golf’s epic days, Tiger Woods hobbled away with the US Open — his 14th major championship — and declared it “probably the greatest tournament I’ve ever had.”
Which, coming from a player who, at age 32, has won 65 US Tour events and a further 22 tournaments around the world — including a 15-shot cakewalk in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach and an eight-shot triumph in the British Open at St Andrews a month later — was really saying something.
Again, Woods needed to produce a key shot at a key moment to hold off the extraordinarily brave challenge from his opponent, fellow-American Rocco Mediate.
The day before, the world No.1 had holed a clutch four-metre putt on the 72nd hole to make the playoff; yesterday he stood on the 18th tee one stroke behind Mediate and needing a birdie four to have any chance of winning his third national championship.
On the 18th hole to end the third round, Woods also sunk an amazing eagle putt.
As he has throughout his career, Woods produced the pressure shot when he had to, ripping his second shot, a 4-iron, about 195 metres into the heart of the green, while Mediate could only find the putting surface with his third. Two putts gave Woods a birdie while Mediate had to settle for a par.
On they went to the 19th hole, where Mediate finally succumbed to the pressure and allowed Woods, who tapped in for a par, to clinch the title – and move within four of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
Fittingly, the win came on the day Woods reached 500 weeks as the world’s No. 1-ranked player.
Yet, he had arrived at Torrey Pines this week with doubts over his ability to play the 72 holes. He was still recovering from surgery to his left knee and hadn’t walked a full 18 holes since the final day of the US Masters on April 13, much less played a competitive round. After some shots, he grimaced with the searing pain from his knee.
But he ground his way through the discomfort, producing miracle shots all the while — especially in Saturday’s third round — giving rise to the question: has any sportsman, ever, performed better under pressure?
You can have Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, Michael Schumacher and Lance Armstrong, Wayne Gretzky and Muhummad Ali, and Pele and Maradona — you can even have the go-to man himself, Michael Jordan — but none of them touch Woods when it comes to the matter of consistently delivering the money shot on cue. It has happened so often now it is no fluke; it is a trademark. Brilliance is expected of him, and invariably that expectation is met.
With concentration honed by his late father, Earl, who used to jangle coins in his pocket when the young Tiger was about to putt, and squeak the brakes on their golf cart as his son was about to hit a drive, Woods’ greatness lies in his extraordinary mental toughness and his ability to trust his swing in even the most the dire predicament, such as on the 18th fairway today.
Now it is simply a matter of time before Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, a record once thought untouchable, falls beneath Woods’ onslaught.
Charles Happell is a former Fairfax sports editor.