- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- Here's some food for thought: While Tiger Woods limped around Torrey Pines, often employing a 3-wood as a cane in order to aid his wounded knee, it became apparent that completing the U.S. Open on Sunday will require a gut-it-out, grin-and-bear-it type of performance, the likes of which we've never witnessed from the 13-time major winner.
But what if his journey doesn't end there?
The USGA is old-school. Though the Masters retains a sudden-death playoff to determine its champion, the PGA Championship uses three aggregate holes and the British Open goes four, the U.S. Open is the only major championship that asks any player tied for the lead to return for 18 more holes on Monday. So it's not out of the realm of possibility that just hours after gritting his teeth through a fourth consecutive day of competitive golf after an eight-week hiatus, he may be standing on the first tee of the South Course once again Monday morning.
If you think this thing's all but over, if you think the engravers should start etching Woods' name onto the trophy based on his current 1-stroke 54-hole lead, it's time to reconsider.
Entering the final round of this tournament in 2005, 3-stroke leader Retief Goosen was thought to be a lock to earn the victory. He lost. Entering the final round in '06, Phil Mickelson was the favorite to win, but he parlayed a 1-shot lead on the last hole into a 1-shot defeat.
But they're not the world's top-ranked player, you say. True, but Tiger is, and last year at Oakmont he entered the final round as part of the day's last pairing, having only once not won a major in such a scenario.
But he didn't win.
Moral of the story: Woods is the prohibitive favorite to claim his third career U.S. Open victory on Sunday, but it's hardly a given. And if he has to return for another round Monday, it will mean increased stress on his knee and more drama at an already dramatic event.
Let's break down what Woods and the other contenders need to do and avoid in order to win the U.S. Open:
Tiger Woods: 3-under 210.
Needs to improve what Woods called "a two-way miss." He'll need to drive the ball straighter and find more greens in regulation, because divine intervention in the form of two long eagle putts and a birdie chip-in may not happen two days in a row.
Needs to avoid letting the pain of his knee injury affect not only his swing but also his ability to stay upright on the course. Seriously. Simply being able to walk 18 holes won't be enough to win on Sunday, but it's a pretty good start. "I just keep telling myself that if it grabs me and if I get that shooting pain, I get it, but it's always after impact," Woods said. "So go ahead and just make the proper swing if I can."
Lee Westwood: 2-under 211.
Needs to continue grinding out pars in bunches. Chances are the final round won't turn into a birdiefest, so Westwood's propensity for pars -- he leads the field with 42 through 54 holes -- isn't such a bad thing.
Needs to avoid any aversion to the Tiger-themed spotlight. All eyes will be on Woods throughout their final-round pairing, with the Englishman theoretically only providing a sideshow to the main event. He'll need to embrace the underdog role better than he did at last year's Bridgestone Invitational, when he shot 10 strokes worse than his No. 1-ranked playing partner in the third round.
Rocco Mediate: 1-under 212.
Needs to stay loose and keep having fun. Throughout Saturday's third round, Mediate provided light moments for the gallery, often imploring it to listen for the roar as Woods made another spectacular shot in the group ahead. That kind of nothing-to-lose attitude has served him well during his career and should yet again on Sunday.
Needs to avoid the big number. Two years ago, Mediate entered the final round of the Masters sharing fourth place but rinsed three balls in Rae's Creek en route to shooting 80. On Saturday, he was 3 strokes clear of the field with six holes to play but was undone in part by a double-bogey on 15. Woods can get away with doubles, but Mediate -- who doesn't have an eagle yet this week -- cannot.
The field: 1-over 214 and above.
Needs to post a number and get into the clubhouse. And it's out there to be had, as Miguel Angel Jimenez shot a 5-under 66 on Friday and Brandt Snedeker had the round of the day with a 68 on Saturday. Either of those scores could be good enough to make things interesting, should Geoff Ogilvy or D.J. Trahan -- each 4 strokes behind Woods -- be able to come through.
Needs to avoid thinking of the final round as another Tiger coronation. For any contenders who feel intimidated when Woods is lurking, it would be a good idea to keep those eyes affixed on the prize -- not the name on top of the leaderboard.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
3dMicah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information