Tiger Woods knew what he needed. Everyone else knew what he would do.
Standing on the par-5 18th hole on the South Course at Torrey Pines – the 72nd hole in the 2008 U.S. Open – Woods trailed Rocco Mediate by one shot.
His tee shot was terrible, a pull into the left fairway bunker. His layup was lousy, a push into the right rough that elicited to a pair of club slams.
Two shots left or all the ecstasy and agony of the last four days was left to die on the vine. Saturday’s third round was one of the most exciting days – final round or not – in major championship history. Woods had hobbled and holed out, chipping in for birdie on 17 and making eagle on 18 to take the 54-hole lead.
No one knew how bad Tiger’s left knee was or that he had a double-stress fracture in his left tibia. That only added to the lore down the line.
But first, history had to be made.
Woods thought about hitting a 56-degree wedge from the rough on the final hole of regulation. He had 95 yards to the front of the green and 101 yards to the pin. His caddie, Steve Williams, convinced him to hit a 60-degree wedge, instead. The thought being: Swing harder, put more spin on the ball, get it to stop coming out of the rough.
It worked. Tiger played his third shot right of the hole and his ball settled about 15 feet away.
After playing competitor Lee Westwood missed a playoff-inducing putt, Woods studied his effort from all angles. He stared intently, as if nothing else in the world existed. And, for a moment, for him, for millions watching, nothing else did.
“That was actually one of the worst parts of the green,” Woods said that Sunday evening. “It's so bumpy down there. And I just kept telling myself two-and-a-half balls outside the right, but make sure you stay committed to it, make a pure stroke and if it Plinkos in, or Plinkos out it doesn't matter, as long as I make a pure stroke.”
Tiger walked toward his ball. He took two quick practice strokes, made his address and peeked twice at the hole. He paused.
And then …
The moment. The greatest moment of his career, as voted on by fans. Tiger’s putt to force a Monday playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open defeated his embrace of father Earl after winning the 1997 Masters, 63.78 percent to 36.22 percent, to top the Tiger Woods’ Greatest Moments Match Play.
But it wasn’t just the putt dropping that made the moment. It was the reaction – his primal screams muted by a deafening crowd. It was the call – Dan Hicks saying, “Expect anything different?” It was that it was Tiger – Westwood making his putt ahead of Woods would offer little comparison. It was that Woods did what he was expected to do – Mediate watching, saying he knew Tiger would make it. It was that Tiger won the next day – in 19 holes.
It was that he did it all on a bum knee and a broken leg. It’s that he hasn’t won a major since.
This one may stand the test of time. It might forever be Woods’ greatest moment. But with Tiger, even with where he is now in his career, there is always the possibility of greater things.