Commentary

Woods' amazing Open tale is almost too much to believe

Originally Published: December 25, 2008
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

The stories behind the story of Tiger Woods and the 2008 U.S. Open …

APRIL 15, 2008: THE SECRET

Tiger WoodsTIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty ImagesFew others knew, but Tiger Woods did: His knee was hurting badly during The Masters.
The Associated Press story was all nuts and bolts, just the way Team Tiger wanted it.

    Tiger Woods had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Tuesday to repair cartilage damage, his second operation in five years on the same knee. He is expected to miss at least a month while he recovers.

    "I made the decision to deal with the pain and schedule the surgery for after the Masters," Woods said. "The upside is that I have been through this process before and know how to handle it. I look forward to working through the rehabilitation process and getting back to action as quickly as I can."

In short, move along, everybody … nothing to see here. Just a quickie repair of some cartilage damage, said Woods' agent Mark Steinberg. In fact, not even longtime swing coach Hank Haney knew about the procedure until Woods called him with the news.

But it was all a carefully orchestrated piece of golf propaganda. A borderline lie.

What Woods didn't reveal is that his left knee was a mess. Yes, there was a cartilage problem; this much was true. But there was also a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, injured during an innocent jog on a golf course. The ACL, Woods would say months later, "was basically shot."

Woods' plan was to have the cartilage repaired, rehab, then play in Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament, a perfect prep job for the U.S. Open two weeks later. After the season, then he'd have reconstructive ACL surgery.

One problem: When it came time to play in the Memorial, Woods couldn't walk.

The public, including even his fellow PGA Tour members, had no idea that Woods was essentially crippled. During his rehab, he had developed a pair of stress fractures in his left tibia. The pain was so severe that Woods could hit only four or five balls at a time before having to sit down.

His doctors told him shortly before the Memorial that he needed to spend three weeks on crutches, followed by three weeks of inactivity, followed by intensive rehab. Woods' response was defiant.

"I'm playing in the U.S. Open, and I'm going to win," he said.

The Secret lived.

APRIL 16, 2008: THE ODDSMAKER

Tiger Woods and Trevor Immelman David Cannon/Getty ImagesTiger Woods' U.S. Open journey began by falling short of Trevor Immelman at Augusta National.
Jason Been tugged gently at the steering wheel of his silver Acura as he turned right off of East Sunset Road and onto Grier Drive. By Las Vegas standards, it was a mercifully cool afternoon: 67 degrees, gusty but clear.

For 34-year-old Been, an architecturally neutered office building located directly across the street from Runway 25L of McCarran International Airport was the center of the universe. This was the world-famous Las Vegas Sports Consultants, home to eight of the most staggeringly smart oddsmakers on the planet. Been was one of the eight.

LVSC billed itself as the world's largest and most respected oddsmaker. It was no accident that the company set the suggested odds or, in Vegas-speak, "set the market … made the numbers on the side," for nearly 80 percent of the casino sports books in Las Vegas. The sports-book directors sometimes tweaked LVSC's numbers, but usually not by much. So respected was the company that its algorithms even were used by the NCAA to help detect suspicious betting patterns in college football or basketball games.

Each of the oddsmakers had a specialty. Been, who played to a 12 handicap, was the golf guy. It was a niche play at the sports books, especially compared with the superpowers of betting action: March Madness and the Super Bowl.

Three days earlier in Augusta, Ga., across from the conga line of strip malls on Washington Road, Trevor Immelman had beaten Tiger Woods by 3 strokes to win the 2008 Masters. Now, Been had to set the market for the next of the four annual majors: the 108th U.S. Open, to be played June 12-15 at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego.

He began by choosing 30 players the squares (your average clueless bettor) could wager on. There would be 156 entrants for the U.S. Open, but the sports books were only interested in players who would actually attract a bet. So Been started crossing off names.

A common mistake made by squares is thinking they're getting true odds on their bets. They're not. Oddsmakers always set the market slightly in favor of the sports books. That's why fan favorites such as the Chicago Cubs, even when they're not good enough to win a World Series, sometimes open at lower odds than more talented teams. It's a way for the sports books to protect themselves from the bets made on the people's choices.

Woods was the Cubs, the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers of golf. To the nth power. You never got true odds on Woods. Sports-book directors rooted for Woods (and his artificially low odds) to win tournaments. Fewer monster payouts that way.

The last time you could make some real money on Woods was in the late '90s, when he was overhauling his swing. Those were the days of 4-1 odds, maybe even 5-1 at times. No more.

Memory Lane

Look back at Tiger Woods' remarkable U.S. Open win, as it unfolded in June at Torrey Pines.
• Tiger tops Rocco on 91st hole
• Forde: Tiger's win was greatest Open ever
• Haney puts Open No. 1 on Tiger's win list
• Jason Sobel blogged the playoff
• Tiger done for the year with torn ACL

Of the four majors, Been knew that the best player usually won the U.S. Open. There had been exceptions, of course, even flukes, but it almost always took a complete player to win that tournament. It was the major with the most muscle mass.

Woods dined on majors. Buick Invitationals were his finger food. Majors were his entrées.

Been did his calculations. He made Woods a 6-5 favorite to win at Torrey Pines. No surprise there. That meant a square would have to bet $12 to win $10. Had it been true odds, Been would have set the number at 3-1.

Phil Mickelson, the closest thing to an archrival for Woods, was next on Been's list. Mickelson opened behind Woods at 8-1, a huge difference.

After choosing 30 players, all Been had to do was clump the remaining 126 entrants into a betting garbage can known as the field and come up with an appropriate odds number.

Been looked at the names. There were amateurs, club pros, Tour pros who had lost their Open exemptions, Tour pros who had never earned exemptions, journeymen, players who were blips on the World Rankings radar.

Rocco Mediate was a blip.

Been knew about Mediate. It was his job to know. He knew Mediate was 45 and had a long history of back ailments. He knew he had never finished higher than fourth in a major. And he knew that, entering the Open, Mediate had missed the cut eight times in 17 tournaments, withdrawn from another tournament and had exactly one finish higher than a tie for 36th. Not exactly a formula for greatness.

As oddsmaking goes, this was a gimme putt for Been. Mediate wasn't anywhere near Been's top-30 list. So into the garbage can Mediate went, part of the 4-1 opening odds for the field. As far as Been was concerned, Mediate had no chance to win.

None at all.

JUNE 2, 2008: THE BLIP GETS IN

Rocco MediateRoss Kinnaird/Getty ImagesRocco Mediate's remarkable U.S. Open run almost never got off the ground.
Little-remembered fact: Mediate came dangerously close to not even playing in the 2008 U.S. Open.

Think about it: Perhaps the greatest U.S. Open and/or major of all time almost didn't come to pass. Woods had serious knee issues. Mediate had serious qualifying issues.

Because he lacked exempt status, Mediate first had to advance to the U.S. Golf Association sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio. Then he had to survive an 11-player playoff to earn an invitation to Torrey Pines. No pressure.

JUNE 7, 2008: TIGER AND ROCCO'S BEST FRIEND: TORREY PINES

Torrey PinesDonald Miralle/Getty ImagesThe 18th hole at Torrey Pines would turn into the scene of high drama later in the week.
It can't speak, but Torrey Pines' South Course was one of the main characters of the '08 Open.

Woods' familiarity with the place (he played it countless times growing up in Southern California, and again on Tour) was a major reason he insisted on gritting through the Open. He adored the 7,643-yard course so much he wanted to take it to prom.

It played to the strengths of his logic-defying talents. And as it turned out, it played to the strengths of the workmanlike and small-ball abilities of Mediate.

JUNE 8, 2008: OUT OF HIDING

Tiger WoodsTravis Lindquist/Getty ImagesOn the second day of practice, Tiger Woods played nine holes, then left the course.
Bubba Watson's cell phone rang. It was Sunday, four days before the Open was to begin. Watson glanced at the caller ID.

Tiger Woods.

"Hey, you want to play a practice round with me?" Woods said. Woods' longtime friend and former U.S. Open champion, Mark O'Meara, had canceled.

"Sure," said Watson, the pro from Bagdad, Fla., whose mind-boggling power had impressed even the great Woods ("Did you see how far he hit it?" Tiger once gushed to a friend after seeing Watson play).

"I'm going first off," said Woods, who did the dawn-patrol thing to avoid the crowds and finish quickly.

"Yeah, I figured that," Watson said.

So Watson and Stanford sophomore Jordan Cox became the first two people outside the tightly drawn Team Tiger circle to see Woods play. Five days earlier, Woods and Haney had taken a cart out at Torrey Pines and played. But the session was closed to the public and the media. There were glimpses of his play, but nothing more.

Woods, Watson and Cox played nine holes Monday (Watson went ahead and finished the practice round) and nine holes Tuesday. Woods didn't say a peep about his knee. And Watson, who knew better, didn't ask.

Like everyone, Watson wondered whether Woods' knee was tight, stiff or hurting. But Woods hid it well. If he was in pain, he didn't show it. Even when Woods quit after nine holes each day, Watson figured his friend was simply resting his knee for precautionary reasons.

Discomfort? "I didn't notice anything like that," Watson said.

Had Watson ever played in pain? "I had a blister on my foot one time," he said. "And it hurt."

Woods didn't play Wednesday. At that point, the only people who knew about the ruptured ACL and the stress fractures were Woods, Haney and caddie Steve Williams.

"I don't know if his wife knew," Watson said. "For us normal people, we would quit. We would have walked off the course in the practice round."

JUNE 12, 2008: AND SO IT BEGAN

Tiger Woods and Phil MickelsonRoss Kinnaird/Getty ImagesTiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were a dream first- and second-round pairing in San Diego.
Thursday's Round 1, made intriguing by the pairings (Woods and Mickelson in the same group) and the questions surrounding Woods' health (By then, Been of Las Vegas Sports Consultants had adjusted his odds on Woods from 6-5 to 9-5).

Tiger opened with a 1-over-par 72, tied for 19th place.

Mickelson shot even par, good enough for a 12th-place tie.

Meanwhile, hardly anybody noticed Mediate and his round of 2-under-par 69. He was tied for third.

JUNE 13, 2008: ROUND 2

Rocco MediateRobert Benson/US PresswireRocco Mediate's gutty play put him in position for a stunning weekend run.
Australia's Stuart Appleby led the tournament after Day 2. Not shocking. Nor was Woods' power move to a tie for second place with a round of 68 (thanks, in part, to a final-nine 30).

The surprise was Mediate, who was playing as carefree as someone in a $2 Nassau. He was tied with Woods … not that anyone expected that to last.

JUNE 14, 2008: A ROUND FOR THE AGES

Tiger WoodsRoss Kinnaird/Getty ImagesTiger Woods played one of the most remarkable back-nine rounds in Open history Saturday.
It was now very apparent that Woods' knee was leaking oil all over Torrey Pines. Yet he produced one remarkable shot after another. At the U.S. Open. On one leg.

His third-round 70 moved Woods into first place. You knew what that meant: Woods had never lost a major when leading or tied for the lead after 54 holes.

The highlight: Woods eagled Nos. 13 and 18 (par-5s), and birdied No. 17 (a par-4).

Watson remembered each delicious detail.

"This is a true story here," Watson said. "We're watching it. We had some friends over at the hotel with us, and I'm watching it with my wife, Angie. My wife says on the first eagle putt, 'He could three-putt this. He could putt this off the green.'

"I said, 'He's going to make this.'

"She said, 'There's no way he's going to make this.'

"I said, 'I'm telling you, he's going to make it.'

"Then he makes it. So I got lucky there guessing that.

"Then we get to 17. Before he tees off on 17, I say, 'If he goes birdie-eagle, he's leading. He's leading this golf tournament.'

"So my wife says, 'There's no way he makes eagle.'

"I say, 'How 'bout this: You have to run up and down this hallway in the hotel screaming, you've got to go back and forth, if he goes birdie-eagle."

"She said, 'I'll do it.'

"So he hits that 5-wood off the tee, whatever it was. Then he hits it short of the green, then he chips it in. I'm like, 'Oh, gosh, all he has to do is eagle.'

"Then on 18, he hits it right down the middle. Plays that big cut. I'm telling you, this could be it. Then he hits that 5-wood, and he's posing. Even though you could see him flinch on that knee, he's posing. He's watching it. It goes to 40 feet.

"I'm thinking, 'He's made long putts before.'

"We're sitting there watching it and you could see his reaction as he putts it: He's just staring at it the whole way. It falls in.

"My wife's like, 'No! There's no way!'

"That was the most fun I've ever had watching a golf tournament. She still owes me. She hasn't run down the hallway yet. But she will. She knows it's coming.

"I haven't gotten a chance to tell Tiger that yet. I can't believe I called all three of those. Unbelievable. It was more like that I just trusted that he would do it. It wasn't that I knew. I just felt like he would do it."

Meanwhile, Mickelson, the late, great rival, crashed and burned. From a first-round 71 to a 75, then a 76. His strategy of not using a driver was universally mocked.

As for Mediate, he somehow gained the lead, lost the lead and eventually dropped to third place, 2 strokes behind Woods. We'd seen the last of Rocco, right?

JUNE 15, 2008: SUNDAY SHOWDOWN

Tiger WoodsJeff Gross/Getty ImagesTiger Woods' birdie putt at 18 on Sunday set off a wild celebration, and forced a playoff.
USGA official Robbie Zalzneck was standing in a tunnel under the massive bleachers next to the 18th green at Torrey. Standing next to him was Tiger's wife, Elin, who was holding the couple's daughter, Sam. Zalzneck asked Elin, "Want to go out there and watch him?"

Reasonable question. After all, Tiger was facing a 12-foot, Porsche-fast, downhill bender for birdie. If he made it, there would be a Monday playoff between Woods and Mediate. If he missed it, Mediate had pulled off one of the three greatest upsets in golf history.

"No, not really," said Elin calmly. "I'm fine right here. Just tell me what happened."

Tiger stroked the putt. The ball dove directly into the hole. Zalzneck didn't have to say a word; not that it would have mattered. You couldn't hear yourself scream.

The bleachers shook as if they were on a fault line. The roar was overpowering.

"The loudest thing in the world," said Zalzneck weeks later. "The whole world knew what was happening."

Mediate, who had shot even-par 71, saw the whole thing while stationed in the scorer's room. Another 16.4 million viewers saw it on NBC.

"I knew he was going to make that putt," said Mediate, as the NBC cameras recorded his every move. "That's what he does."

JUNE 16, 2008: THE PLAYOFF

Tiger Woods and Rocco MediateAP Photo/Chris CarlsonRocco Mediate was smiling after 19 tense holes, but Tiger Woods claimed the U.S. Open trophy.
Drama is founded on the principle of tension, of resolution and, almost always, of Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. You're forced to take sides.

But what made the '08 U.S. Open so embraceable, so different, was that you could root for Woods and Mediate. There was no bad guy. Just different guys.

Woods, the prodigy … destined for greatness from the time he could hold a club in his hands … a Stanford man … the billion-dollar athlete to-be … known planetwide.

Mediate, the journeyman grinder … ranked 158th in the world, his career almost undone by back injuries and surgery … a Florida Southern man … winner of five Tour events, the last one coming in 2002.

So inconspicuous was Mediate's legacy that even as he was vying for the U.S. Open championship, his photo remained posted inside the locker room of Bel Air Country Club in Los Angeles. Turns out Mediate was still awaiting word on his membership application.

Whatever it was, people paid attention. Nearly 5 million viewers watched ESPN's coverage of the first nine holes of the Monday playoff, a record for a cable golf broadcast. NBC's back-nine coverage drew the largest audience for a tournament in the past 30 years.

Included in the viewing audience was none other than 86-year-old Jack Fleck. Fleck is the man responsible for arguably the greatest golfing upset of all time: a playoff victory against Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open at Olympic.

Fleck watched the Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday rounds on TV from his home in Fort Smith, Ark. But earlier in the week, Fleck had been at Torrey Pines. He was a regular at the driving range, where he offered advice to Vijay Singh (Singh listened intently but then, once play began, ignored the tips). Fleck also noticed something about Woods' swing.

It wasn't the first time. In fact, Fleck said Woods could have won every tournament he entered if only he had taken Fleck's phone call four years earlier at the Western Open in suburban Chicago.

The story: Fleck had called the locker-room attendant at the Cog Hill golf complex looking for Tiger. The attendant, who knew of the Fleck legacy, offered to take a message and give it to Woods.

"OK, you've got my name," Fleck said. "Tell Tiger if he wants to be the best driver ever, here's my number."

No return call. Fleck contacted the attendant again.

"I talked to Tiger," the attendant said. "He said, 'Yeah, I recognize the name. Tell him thank you very much. I'm in good shape."

Fleck wasn't so sure.

"He's the greatest player of all that I ever played with and watched," Fleck said weeks after the 2008 U.S. Open. "But he's the poorest driver of the golf ball of anyone of his talent."

Maybe so, but the country was mesmerized by Woods, Mediate and a tournament that lasted 91 holes. People watched from work, at bars, at munis and country clubs, at airports and, in Bubba Watson's case, in hotel rooms and airplanes.

"I ended up missing the cut," Watson said. "I watched every second of it. Every time there's a major, I like watching the pros struggle, you know. Makes me not feel so bad.

"On Monday, we were flying to the Travelers [Championship, in Connecticut], but the plane we were on had satellite TV. So every pro who took that flight to the Travelers got to watch it. There were 50-60 players and maybe 130 people all together. Every TV on every seat was on the golf. Even the empty seats had it on.

"You knew the pain. As the week went on, you knew his pain was bad. And Rocco was playing good, so you could easily see Rocco winning. But at the same time, you knew Tiger was going to be right there. It was going to be hard for Rocco to win it. You always know Tiger is never going to give up; he's going to be right there at all times."

Woods and Mediate shot identical 71s in the 18-hole playoff (and also wore almost identical shades of red shirts and black hats). On the 91st hole of the tournament -- sudden death -- Woods parred the 461-yard No. 7. Mediate bogeyed.

Somewhere in Vegas, Jason Been was smiling.

It was Woods' 14th major, leaving him only four behind Jack Nicklaus' record 18. Equally remarkable: Woods was only 32 years old.

Watson would later send a text message to Woods. It read, "You're amazing."

JUNE 19, 2008: THE AFTERMATH

Tiger WoodsAP Photo/Charlie RiedelObviously in pain throughout the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods underwent knee surgery days later.
From a Washington Post story by Leonard Shapiro:

    Woods revealed that he had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while running near his home in Orlando last summer after the British Open, and had been hoping to "play through the pain" this year before surgery. He also said he played last week with two stress fractures in his left tibia, the large bone in the lower leg, suffered while he was rehabilitating the knee from surgery on April 15 to repair cartilage damage. He will need reconstructive surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament … and months of rest to recuperate from the surgery and to allow the damage to the bone to heal.

Watson had heard about Woods' announcement during his Wednesday practice round at the Travelers. Time for more text messages to Woods.

Wrote Watson: ("I'm praying for you … Your health is more important than your golf career … You got a little girl. Make sure you can run around with your little girl.")

PGA Tour pro Sean O'Hair could barely believe the news, either. O'Hair had withdrawn from the Open because of injuries suffered in a car accident. He watched Woods' victory from his couch.

"I think it was probably one of the greatest things we've ever seen in sports, period," O'Hair said. "Basically a guy winning a major like that on a bum leg.

"I think we all had our doubts on how bad it was until we actually heard what the story was afterward. … All we knew is that he had surgery on it. We all assumed that he was going to be fine, didn't we? We all assumed he was going to come out healthy and that he might have a little bit of problems. Obviously, it bothered him out there. Then to find out he's got a fractured whatever, and a ruptured whatever, and torn this, torn that. It's like, 'Geez.'"

O'Hair joked that he felt like a slacker. He had sat home with tender ribs. Woods had grimaced his way to a major on one knee.

"He's going to find a way to win, no matter what," O'Hair said. "It doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter.

"We were actually talking about this. If he broke his arm and couldn't play right-handed, he'd find a way to play left-handed."

And find a way to win.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter