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The beauty of sports lies in its unpredictability. From the first pitch or the first drive, we’re taken on a ride for which the destination and outcome are unknown. How rich that experience becomes and how long it will stick with us – well, that depends on extraordinary feats of courage or skill, on marvelous moments on a grand stage, and on the athletes who can change an outcome in an instant.
Any one of those elements can stir something deep in us. When they all collide in one spectacular explosion of color and sound and deep emotion, you have something that will be recalled through generations.
The 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines was all of that. This was to be Tiger Woods’ homecoming, at the place where he’d first watched professional golf with his dad and later dominated his peers on the PGA Tour.
But Woods, then 32 years old, also was injured, having recently had a third surgery on his left knee, and unbeknownst to nearly everyone, he was also playing with leg fractures that would put him out for months afterward.
That’s dramatic enough. Then add Rocco Mediate, a chatty, good-natured 45-year-old journeyman who ranked outside the world top 100 but had a deep appreciation for the challenges presented by the U.S. Open. For this longest layout in the championship’s history, however, no one saw Mediate contending.
Woods grimaced his way into weekend contention, and Mediate joked and laughed his way through, too, shockingly forcing Woods into a Monday playoff. It was the Megastar vs. the Everyman. The record crowds picked their sides, and over Sunday’s final round and a Monday playoff that went 19 holes, Torrey Pines buzzed with an electricity rarely felt in any sporting event ever.
USGA CEO Mike Davis will work his 32nd and final U.S. Open when the 121st edition is contested at Torrey Pines in June. He knows the championship’s deep history intimately, and believes Torrey Pines, 2008 belongs in its own category.
“There are just so many parts to the 2008 U.S. Open,” Davis said. “’It’s the greatest I’ve seen.”
Tommy Roy, NBC’s longtime golf producer, said he’d always considered Jack Nicklaus’ 1986 Masters victory to be the greatest golf broadcast ever – until Torrey, Tiger and Rocco.
“When you think about that Masters, the dramatic sequences last about an hour and a half,” Roy said. “That U.S. Open was three full days of incredible scenes. It topped ’86, absolutely.”
So many great moments, so many memories. As such, what follows is an oral history from some of those people closest to the action that incredible week.
The Torrey Pines South Course, which had hosted PGA Tour events for decades, underwent a renovation by architect Rees Jones in 2001, and the following year the USGA invited the City of San Diego to host the 2008 U.S. Open. It would follow the highly successful 2002 U.S. Open at New York State-run Bethpage Black.
Davis: This was our second time showing people, “Look how good it can be on a truly municipal golf course.” The 2002 and 2008 U.S. Opens were great championships. I think it showed the golf world that if you desire to have a great experience, it doesn’t matter whether it’s private, public or resort. It’s a golf course.
The USGA created a buzz before the first ball was struck when it grouped for Thursday and Friday the world’s three top-ranked players: No. 1 Tiger Woods, No. 2 Phil Mickelson and No. 3 Adam Scott.
Davis: We had done traditional pairings in the past and tried to do some clever ones. I was involved back then in doing the pairings with Jeff Hall, and we’d lock ourselves in a room Wednesday of the week before, and it was some of the most fun days I’d ever spent. We had never done 1, 2, 3, and I said, “This would be cool. Let’s do it!” We bounced it off NBC, and they loved the idea. It’s commonplace now, but back then it was never done.
Dan Hicks, NBC golf anchor: It was a great pairing. Tiger was out there to kill or be killed. And Mickelson was his biggest rival, who was finally hitting his stride. It’s a different dynamic today, but there was no love lost between Tiger and Phil at the time.
Adam Scott: I was the third wheel hanging off the back! Every time I come back (to Torrey Pines) I’m reminded of it. It’s a strong, strong memory… The atmosphere for the whole 36 holes I played with Phil and Tiger was incredible, but Thursday morning the energy around the first hole was like… I can’t compare it to anything else.
The pairing nearly didn’t happen. On the night before the groupings were decided, Davis got a call from Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent.
Davis: Mark said, “Mike, Tiger is going to play, but I have something I need to tell you.” Tiger had fractures in his leg – essentially, he had a broken leg. I said, “What?!” He said, “Mike, you’ve got to promise that you’re not going to tell anybody.” And I kept that promise. Never did I tell anybody until they came out and disclosed it. The way Mark put it to me is that Tiger would not have played in the U.S. Open had it not been for Torrey Pines. It meant a lot to him growing up in Southern California.
I didn’t tell Jeff Hall, but I almost didn’t do 1, 2, 3 because if Tiger pulls out, we end up with the first alternate in that group. That wasn’t going to be ideal. But Mark told me Tiger was going to play, so I said, “OK, we’re going with it.”
It became apparent early on that Woods was in considerable pain. There were many occasions when the cameras lingered on him as he winced and doubled over after a shot, and when he double-bogeyed the opening hole – one of his three doubles on the hole for the week – his chances for victory looked slim.
Hicks: We had a short [pre-championship] interview with Tiger, and I was anxious to see how he was feeling. I asked if he was 100 percent, and without hesitating, he looked at me with his typical grin and says, “I’m good to go.” With that wry smile, I don’t think he is. That stuck in my mind when things started unfolding.
Mediate got off to a strong start with a 2-under 69 on Thursday, and when he shot even-par 71 on Friday he was in a four-way tie for second, one behind Stuart Appleby, with Woods and Robert Karlsson.
Mediate: I knew I was hitting it so good that week. Did I know I was going to be in contention to win? Not really. But I was playing good enough to do something, whatever that was.
Woods’ Saturday charge is one for the ages. Five shots off the lead with six holes to play, he begins a back-nine revival by reaching the par-5 13th green in two and draining a 60-foot eagle putt. When the putt falls in, Hicks exclaims, “Welcome to Tiger Pines!”
Roger Maltbie, NBC on-course announcer who was walking with Woods’ group: He could stand there forever and not make that putt. It was Tiger in his prime, possessing that otherworldly magic, where he would pull off a shot when it was absolutely needed most.
Woods would produce two more spectacular shots — a pitch-in from the deep greenside rough for birdie at 17 and a snaking 30-foot eagle putt at 18 that vaulted him into the 54-hole lead at 3 under, one ahead of Lee Westwood and two in front of Mediate.
NBC golf producer Tommy Roy: We had a very good Friday telecast on ESPN. I’m thinking, this is awesome. Then Saturday happens, and we had an incredible telecast. It was so dramatic, and the place was rocking. We get off the air and I’m saying to our people, “Can you imagine what this would have been like on a Sunday?” And then Sunday topped that!
On Saturday night, the NBC crew sought to interview the leaders, and while Westwood declined, Mediate showed up, relaxed in his bare feet.
Hicks: I thought at this point that Rocco had a chance. He’d stuck around for this long, and he had this happy-go-lucky attitude. He’s got this peace sign on his belt buckle, and he was on the threshold of winning the U.S. Open as this incredible underdog.
Playing in the penultimate group on Sunday, Mediate shot 71, missing a birdie putt on 18 that would have earned him the championship. In the last group, Woods needed a birdie to tie Mediate at 1 under. After laying up, he hit a wedge to 12 feet right of the hole.
Hicks: The whole thing had been building… the injury and Tiger limping his way to the finish line. We had Rocco watching from a TV monitor in the clubhouse. There is this whole level of expectancy, anxiety coming into my mind. After Johnny broke down the putt, we had this inordinate amount of time to listen and watch. All these years of Johnny and I covering Tiger… those images were flashing and zooming before me.
In a moment more replayed and recounted than any in Woods’ career, he makes the sliding putt – barely, his ball toppling into the side of the hole. Slow-motion replays will show the ball bouncing vigorously en route. Woods’ reaction is instantly iconic; he extends both arms in triumph and produces a guttural roar drowned out by an explosion of cheers.
Mediate: This is going to sound disrespectful, but it’s really not. Anybody else with that putt, there’s pretty much no chance they’re going to make it. I figured there was no way he was going to miss. Still, it was shocking in the moment. Like, holy crap! I knew he would make it, but damn it, he did!
Xander Schauffele, current PGA Tour player who was 15 years old in 2008 and perched against a tree on the South’s final hole: It felt like it took 10 seconds for the ball to get to the hole. When it went in, the sound was deafening. It got so loud, so quickly. I was quiet, but everyone else was going crazy. I was sitting there in shock. What just happened?
In his most memorable broadcasting call, Hicks exclaimed after the putt dropped, “Expect anything different?”
Hicks: As a broadcaster you want to enhance the moment, not trample on it. The thought was that everybody at home was thinking, “This is Tiger Woods. He doesn’t miss these.” Everybody expected him to make it, and it came blurting out.
The tie forced what would be the last 18-hole Monday playoff in U.S. Open history. Fans played hooky from work to either attend or watch on TV. Stock market trading dipped dramatically. At Torrey Pines, a moving arena of thousands of fans followed the two players. It was beautiful bedlam, the crowd’s loyalty evenly split.
Maltbie: It was a David-and-Goliath story, right? Rocco had a decent U.S. Open record. For those in the know, Rocco being there wasn’t inexplicable. But for John Q. Public, it was, “Who is Rocco Mediate and why is this happening?”
Mediate: People were saying, “You’re going to get murdered.” I totally get it. He’s supposed to decimate me. But I ain’t playing on Monday morning because I had an accident for four days. I saw Tiger in the media center on Sunday night, and I said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we are going to put on a show.”
Mediate fell three shots down through 10 holes, only to have Woods bogey Nos. 11 and 12. They both birdied 13, and when Mediate birdied 14 and 15, he had seized a one-shot lead. At the 18th hole, just as on Sunday, Mediate missed a birdie chance to win, and Woods tied him again with a birdie. Davis asked them to sign the scorecards for their respective 71s and sent them to the first sudden-death playoff hole, the par-4 seventh.
Maltbie: The thought occurred to me at this point… it was almost like Rocco saw the reality of it. “I’ve done this as long and as hard as I can do it. This is the inevitable outcome.” There was a little bit of resignation, it seemed to me.
The dogleg-right seventh didn’t fit Mediate’s go-to draw, and he drove into the left fairway bunker, while Woods’ stinger found the fairway. From a tough lie, Mediate hooked his approach near the grandstands, where he had to take a drop.
Davis: Rocco goes to drop his ball, and it hits out of the drop zone and bounces forward. He is literally going to pick up his ball and I said, “Rocco! That ball is in play!” Think about that: One of the greatest championships ending on a penalty stroke because he picks the ball up. We’d have never heard the end of it.
The end came rather anticlimactically, with Woods making a routine par and Mediate a bogey.
Mediate: I had missed my putt, and he came over to shake my hand and I gave him a hug. He was in shock. I’m, like, “No, no, no, this is way better than a handshake here.” The only thing he said to me was, “Great fight.” And it was. That’s how I look at it.
Tod Leonard is a San Diego-based golf writer.