Oral history: Woods' 2008 win provided great theater at Torrey Pines
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
A few weeks prior to the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods sat on a couch, an MRI having just revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament and two stress fractures in his left leg. His doctor told him he’d need to be on crutches for 3-4 weeks and inactive for another two -- to which Woods replied, “I’m playing in the U.S. Open, and I’m going to win.”
Woods did just that, pushed to the limit by pesky and persistent 45-years-ancient Rocco Mediate. The two slugged it out over 91 holes in arguably the most memorable U.S. Open ever. Or certainly since the “Merry Mex,” Lee Trevino, won a playoff over Jack Nicklaus in 1971 at Merion, or Ben Hogan miraculously returned from a near-fatal car crash to win there 21 years earlier.
Much the way Hy Peskin’s iconic photo of Hogan’s 1-iron approach on Merion’s 18th hole is synonymous with that championship, so too are the images of Woods wincing and limping and struggling his way around Torrey Pines. And of course that curling, bouncing putt on the 72nd hole that caught the corner of the cup, fell in and raised a roar that could be heard clear across San Diego.
Five years later, the legend has only grown in stature and significance. One for the books, it was also the last time anyone was able to write about Woods in such a light because, while he has won 13 times since, it was also the last time he hoisted a major championship trophy.
It might not have ever happened, though, if not for Woods’ indomitable will. No one outside of Woods’ small inner circle knew the extent of his injuries until two days after the U.S. Open. But that age-old adage was always looming: No pain, no gain.
PRELUDE: THE INJURY
Hank Haney (Woods’ coach): He played a couple of practice rounds at nearby Big Canyon and Shady Canyon the week before using a cart and he played just terrible. It was maybe Friday before the U.S. Open and he lost six balls in nine holes. The next day I told him if you’re going to play in the U.S. Open let’s see if you can even walk nine holes. I drove the cart and he just walked alongside. That was the first time I thought, ‘Well, he can at least get started.’ Once the tournament began, I knew he wasn’t going to quit.
Tiger Woods: I knew that if there was even a chance I could play, I was going to. It’s the U.S. Open and Torrey Pines is a course I know and really like. I used to play there as a junior. I first played it when I was about 10. It’s where my pop first took me to watch the PGA TOUR.
Steve Williams (Woods’ caddie): Tiger’s practice rounds gave no indication he could play the way he did in the tournament. But his will and desire was so great -- he wanted to win that tournament more than any other I’d ever caddied for him. He was also looking forward to that major more than any other I’ve ever seen because it was Torrey Pines.
Matt Achatz (Mediate’s caddie): Not many people know this but before the tournament even started, Rocco’s driver broke. He’d been using a Callaway FT-5 for a year-and-a-half and driving it awesome. When we got to Torrey Pines, he took it out of the bag and the head fell off. Callaway built three new drivers that week and he just sort of picked the one that wasn’t the worst of the three. But it wasn’t his game driver, and I had watched Rocco go through 75 maybe 100 drivers before he found one he liked. That was pretty a big ordeal.
ACT I: THE OPENING ROUND
The top three players in the world were paired for the first two rounds for the first time in a U.S. Open, and none of them broke par, with Woods shooting a 1-over 72, Phil Mickelson even par and Adam Scott 2 over. The lead, however, was only 3 under (Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman). Mediate, meanwhile, was just a stroke back after the first day.
Matt Achatz (Mediate’s caddie): I wasn’t a 10-year veteran on the bag or anything like that. I worked nights as a waiter in the Hamptons and spent days as a club caddie at East Hampton Country Club. In the fall, I’d go to Florida and caddie at Calusa Pines in Naples, but that year I headed to California and was at Sherwood Country Club when Rocco asked me if I would caddie for him in Phoenix. He made the cut, but then there was a string of missed cuts. We had a good talk about how far his clubs go, which would help me club him better. Then he had his best finish of the season, a tie for sixth at the Memorial, a couple weeks before the U.S. Open. He started to play really good golf and I felt like he’d have a good finish at Torrey Pines.
Mediate: So many different shots stand out from that week, but I remember being in the front left bunker on the par-4 14th -- I’d started on No. 10 -- and saving bogey. That was important. You don’t want to make double bogey on your fifth hole of the tournament.
Achatz: He hit a bad drive into that bunker, chunked it out, and eventually hit a bad chip to 15 or 16 feet. It might not sound huge -- especially that early in the tournament -- but instead of going from 1 under to 1 over he was even par. Once he made that putt, it kind of felt like something could happen. He was never over par the entire championship.
ACT II: FRIDAY AND SATURDAY
Moving day came early. The overnight leaders after the first round, Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman, shot 80 and 77, respectively, and tumbled down the leaderboard. Woods, meanwhile, torched Torrey Pines, where he’d won five times previously, including earlier that year. He closed in 30 on the front nine, which was within one of matching the U.S. Open scoring record for nine holes. Mediate held his own again, too, carding a 71 in the second round that left him and Woods tied for second, along with Robert Karlsson, heading into the weekend. Woods and Karlsson were paired in what would be a compelling third round.
Achatz: Our last hole of the day on Friday was the par-5 18th and the tees were up. Rocco piped his drive, and the carry number to the green was 244 yards. Rocco hits his 3-wood 245 yards. We were debating whether to go for it or not and at that point we’re in the lead and I told him I was all for him going for it if he was comfortable with the shot. If we make eagle, we can really jump ahead. If not, the worse that will happen is we make par. He roasted his 3-wood in one of the best shots I’ve ever seen. It covered the green by a yard and rolled to 20 feet, and he two-putted for birdie. What a great way to end Friday of the U.S. Open.
Woods: The uncertainly of not knowing when my knee would hurt was among the most difficult parts. Sometimes when I hit the ball the pain was really bad, and sometimes it wasn’t. The pain wasn’t bad on every shot. I decided to just go ahead and hit it and worry about the consequences later.
Johnny Miller (NBC analyst): My recollection is all about Tiger’s knee going into Saturday. I think he was pretty much done. He said he took over-the counter-meds, and we’ll let him answer that one. But I believe if it weren’t for the medication he took that day, and the next day, and the playoff, I don’t think he would have won. He was in big trouble. But after he took the meds at No. 9 or whatever it was, he was the most smiley we’ve seen him in a while.
Robert Karlsson: You could see he was in a lot of pain and neither one of us played a great front nine, but on No. 11 is when it started to turn around. Then on the par-5 13th he hit is so far right, it was over by the public restrooms. His second shot landed on the back of the green, but he rolled in a 60-footer down the hill for eagle. I could see the ball going toward the hole and when it got to within a few feet I knew it was going in. The crowd went crazy. You could feel them.
Williams: Tiger had practiced that putt in his practice round, so he had an idea of how much it would break. But those are fairy-tale putts. You’re just trying to get it down there close to the hole. Every so often they go in.
Karlsson: Tiger was way right on the par-4 17th and as he was walking off the tee I could see he was in a lot of pain. I asked Steve Williams if he thought Tiger would be able to finish, and he said to me, ‘From the way he looks right now, I don’t know.’ Then he chipped in from behind the green and he just turned to me as he walked off the green, smiled, and said something like, ‘That ball was absolutely gone.’ You knew things were going his way because if it didn’t go in the hole it would have been 20 feet past it.
Haney: Tiger’s interest level was incredible. He was so patient. We’d talked about that. I told him this is going to be really hard and you’re going to need all of your energy so you can’t waste a lot of it over bad shots. His patience level was much greater than I’ve ever seen before. He’s also of the mindset that getting all fired up helps his game. When he gets mad I think he does it on purpose to get himself going.
Karlsson: On the tee at the par-5 18th, he took a couple of practice swings and I thought, ‘OK, maybe he’s alright.’ Then he hit his second shot, a fairway wood, onto the green about 12 feet from the hole. It was hole-high into a rock-hard green and he made the putt for eagle. It was brilliant approach. I’ve never seen anything like it. And when he made the putt, the atmosphere was like a rock concert.
Williams: Going down 18, he didn’t appear to be feeling as much pain. That roar (on 17) just pumped him up. If the chip on 17 doesn’t go in and he walks off with a bogey, the wind would have been out of his sails and I don’t know that he would have eagled the last. Being able to eagle the last hole on Saturday gave him a great opportunity to win the championship. He could’ve gone 5-5 and that would’ve been the whole tournament. Instead, he was in the lead.
ACT III: SUNDAY
Woods had never lost a major championship in which he held at least a share of the lead going into the final round. Playing in the day’s final pairing it took him all of one hole to lose that lead, however, after he double bogeyed No. 1 for the third time that week. He made another bogey on No 2. Mediate, playing in the second-to-last group with Geoff Ogilvy, made just one bogey over his final 13 holes and was in the clubhouse, leading by one over Woods and Lee Westwood, as they reached the final hole.
Mediate: My second shot on 17 on Sunday was one of those I’ll remember. It was a nervy shot. I hit a beautiful 7-iron into the green and thought I made the putt. I had a one-shot lead and I knew if I could birdie the last two it was over. Instead, I made par on both.
Williams: No one made any big moves so there was never a point where Tiger was out of it. He had to make 4 on the 18th to get into a playoff with Rocco, but he hit his drive in the bunker and had to lay up. He hit a terrible shot and landed in the right rough and was 108 yards out. Normally, that yardage is a sand wedge. But in my head I was thinking the only chance he has to get the ball close is to hit a flat-out lob wedge and land it as close as he can to the front edge. Even though it was late in the day, there was still quite a bit of dew over there because it was in the shade. It was touch-and-go whether he could hit it that far, but he was pumped up and hitting out of the kikuyu grass. Usually he is very decisive on what club to hit, but it took some convincing on my part.
Woods: The shot most people talk about is the putt to get in the playoff. The putt was probably about two-and-a-half balls outside right on some pretty bumpy greens. I just wanted to make a pure stroke. I couldn’t worry if it bounced in or out. That’s something I couldn’t control. I hit it exactly where I wanted it to go and it went in.
Williams: Tiger had a remarkable knack of holing putts when he had to. I knew it was makeable and with not a lot of break, but the greens were bouncy. Sometimes it’s just destiny.
Miller: That putt that Tiger made to tie was amazing. That thing was bouncing like a basketball going down there, and it went in by about a 16th-of-an-inch on the low side.
Ogilvy: I was Rocco’s biggest fan that day. If you’re not going to win, you always want the guy you’re playing with to. I’ve been not far away from Tiger when he’s gotten a huge roar from the crowd. By the time he was putting on 18, I was over by the putting green next to No. 10 a couple hundred yards away and when he holed the putt for birdie it was really loud. There are a lot of roars in golf when you know someone’s done something cool. I had no idea what was happening but when he holed that one you just knew.
Haney: I had watched most of the U.S. Open sitting in a hospitality tent with the people from Buick. I was always incredibly confident in Tiger. Once he gets himself in those positions he figures out how to get it done. Anything can happen and being down going to the 18th hole is not a great place to be in, but if you could pick one guy in that spot, he’d be the one guy you’d want to pick.
ACT IV: MONDAY
With Woods and Mediate tied after 72 holes, they met in an 18-hole playoff for the national championship a day later. Mediate hadn’t won a tournament in six years, while Woods was trying like heck for his 14th career major. After 10 holes it looked like Woods, leading by three, would win in a walkover. But by the 15th hole, he trailed Mediate by a stroke. Woods again came to the 18th trailing by one, again made birdie, this time from just a few feet, while Mediate made par. They played one more sudden-death hole, the 91st and final one of the week.
Mediate: I didn’t want go to sleep Sunday night. I remember I wanted to play immediately and I couldn’t wait to get the thing started on Monday. I was going crazy. I was nervous, but in a good way. At that point, I was operating on pure adrenaline. I wasn’t even concerned about sleeping, but I managed to get about 5 or 6 hours of sleep and woke up about 5:30 that morning.
Woods: The night before the playoff I spent about the same after every round. As soon as I got back to the room, treatments would start and last long into the night. I’d eat something and try to get some sleep.
Roger Maltbie (NBC on-course analyst): The first thing that stood out to me was the size of the crowd on Monday. It was as big as any other day, and it was with only one group on the course.
Mediate: At that point, there was nothing left to say. It’s basically hand-to-hand combat. You can’t hide. You can’t fake it. The whole world is watching. The whole world thinks I’m going to get destroyed, and that was my motivation. When I woke up that morning I knew I could beat Tiger if I played great. I was right where I wanted to be. Even when I was three down through 11 holes I told my caddie if I can hit the ball the way I want, I can beat this guy.
Achatz: I was hoping and praying the tees would be all the way back on 18 because then it would be a three-shot par-5. The 18th is a par-4 for Tiger. Had the tees been back I think we would have had him. It really was a David vs. Goliath thing. Tiger was hitting it 30, 40, 50 yards past Rocco on every tee.
Mediate: When I was over my birdie putt on 18 to beat him, I thought I would make it. But it didn’t break like we thought. It never moved.
Woods: I kept looking at my putt on 18, but I didn't see a thing. From what I could tell, there wasn’t any break at all. I did give the putt a little extra bit of speed. It was 4 feet to keep the tournament going.
Achatz: The funny thing about the par-4 seventh, the sudden-death playoff hole, was I remember we hit maybe 30 drives on that hole during the practice rounds and could never find the fairway. During five rounds of the tournament we never hit the fairway. Then in sudden-death we didn’t hit it. Rocco’s (new) driver had a tendency to go left, and he hit it left and into the bunker in the playoff. Obviously it sucks we didn’t win -- that’s always going to sting a little because Rocco played great.
Miller: It was a gutty performance (by Tiger), but I think Rocco still can’t believe Tiger beat him. You’ll see him in the airport and he’ll go, ‘Miller, can you believe Tiger beat me and he made that putt?’ I mean he just can’t get past it. It’s a famous way to lose and say you lost to Tiger Woods.
ACT V: THE AFTERMATH AND REFLECTION
Five years later, Woods is still looking for his next major championship. Mediate is on the Champions Tour. And the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines is remembered as one of the greatest ever.
Mediate: I can’t believe it has been five years. It feels like it was last week. Almost not a day goes by when I’m not asked about it. It was a special time and a really cool opportunity and I did all I could with it. It’s probably one of the coolest days I have ever had on the course.
Achatz: I’ve never seen a tape of it. Rocco has the DVDs and I’ve seen a couple of the highlights, but I’ve never seen it from start to finish. It would be awesome to watch. It definitely wasn’t the outcome I wanted, but it would be great to see. I’d like to hear the dialogue between us and between Steve and Tiger. Just to be part of it -- it’s going to go down as Tiger’s greatest victory -- is pretty special, even though we were on the losing end. Every year during U.S. Open time they’re going to show clips of it. To be that close to it with a good friend is even better.
Mediate: I’ve watched it a few times and just the other night I watched a replay of the 1971 U.S. Open. That was an amazing playoff. It was almost the same as this one except Jack Nicklaus was the best player in the world and Lee Trevino was the second best. Ours was different, which is what made it so intriguing.
Woods: Afterward, I had a lot free time, so I did watch the tape. What stood out was what a great battle Rocco and I had. He played really well, and like me, hit some good shots and made a few mistakes. He’s a great competitor and he played terrific golf. It was a good fight.
Williams: It’s always hard to rank wins, but in order to win majors you have to be on your best game and have to peak for one of those four weeks. That week, Tiger was nowhere near peak form. Since then, he’s talked about that tournament more than any other that he won, including the four straight majors he won between 2000 and 2001.
Haney: At first, I didn’t think Tiger would be able to play. But as everything was unfolding, I thought if he pulled this off it would be one of the greatest feats in the history of sports. I always thought that fueled him. He’s the kind of guy that the bigger the mountain is, the more it interests him -- and in his career at that time that was the biggest mountain he had.
Mediate: I hope one day Tiger and I can sit down and talk about it. For me, it would be important. But for him, it doesn’t matter. He’s won 14 of them, but for me it was pretty special. It’s not really a dig, it’s just the way he is.