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Mystique grows with perhaps Tigerís greatest display of golf

By Tim Dahlberg
Associated Press columnist
SAN DIEGO ó The legend grows.
On a sunny day on the California coast, Tiger Woods beat a guy ranked 158th in the world ó and the world couldnít get enough of it.
This wasnít Rocco versus Tiger for the U.S. Open title. This was Rocky against the champ in a slugfest so compelling that even an extra 18 holes couldnít settle it.
In one corner was the superstar who seems to summon super powers when he needs them most. In the other was the common man who won over a crowd and a country with his ready smile and quick wit, someone we could imagine ourselves trading places with as he played Woods for the national championship.
Southern Californians who apparently donít have to work Mondays like they do in the rest of the country came out in huge numbers to watch. Productivity had to drop to zero in offices around the country as workers sneaked peeks at the television or followed the action online.
They played 19 before the gritty underdog finally succumbed to the inevitable. They could have played 19 more and it would have likely been just as close.
And in the end, a few words from the great one seemed to mean almost as much to Rocco Mediate as the U.S. Open title he so desperately wanted to win.
iGreat fight,î Woods told him.
That was all Mediate wanted to give Woods, all he wanted to be remembered for when the historians of the sport look back to the five days that unfolded on a muni perched on a cliff above the blue Pacific. He craved the respect of the greatest golfer of his era, while nervously cherishing the challenge of matching him shot for shot.
He would have loved to be the Open champion, loved to bask in the glory of his only major title. But after a week of dramatics from Woods, he had to know deep inside that the drama on this final day wouldnít be one he would be writing.
Mediate would have been the Open champion had Woods not made a birdie on the last hole Sunday. He would have been the Open champion had Woods not made a birdie on the 18th hole Monday.
Heís not the Open champion because, well, Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods.
Two days earlier, he played through pain to give us a thrill on the back nine to take the Open lead. The next day he calmly stroked a 12-footer into the side of the cup on the 18th hole to force another 18 holes of overtime.
And in a final bit of drama he finally managed to find the fairway on No. 18 on Monday to come from a shot behind before finishing Mediate off with a routine par on the first playoff hole.
Weíve all seen it before so we all knew it was coming. Mediate is no dummy, so he had to know it was coming, too.
When it finally happened, Woods hugged caddie Stevie Williams, headed back to the 18th green to hold his toddler daughter, and tried to put it all into some kind of perspective.
It wasnít that hard. Because just when you thought the lore that is Tiger Woods couldnít possibly grow any more, he topped everything.
The fact that it came on a bum knee in a place that has meant so much to him made it even better. With his father watching, Woods won the junior world here as a teen-ager, then added six Buick Invitational titles at Torrey Pines. This time it was his daughter walking and watching what may be his biggest win since his first major, the 1997 Masters.
iThis is probably the greatest tournament Iíve ever had,î Woods said.
Mediate might say the same thing, even though he had to console himself with second-place money and a ton of new fans who yelled his name as he walked the fairways, smiling at every turn and sweating so much that the towel his caddie carried looked as if it had just come out of the wash.
For his appearance on centerstage, Mediate came dressed exactly like Woods, with his black pants, red shirt, black vest and black hat. In Tigerís clothes, he didnít have Tigerís game but he had enough to come from three shots down after 10 holes to take an improbable lead into the 18th hole that might have stood up against anybody else.
Unfortunately for the Mediate family trophy case, this wasnít anybody else. This was quite possibly the best player ever to don long pants and swing a golf club. This was a great athlete in his prime who seems to have the ability to do what no one else can ó summon up the shot he needs when he needs it the most.
iHeís always a little better when it means more,î swing coach Hank Haney said.
The fact Woods did it again wasnít all that surprising. Heís now won 14 major championships, four short of Jack Nicklaus, and nearly every one of them has had a compelling storyline, from his runaway win at the Masters to his tearful win after his fatherís death at the British Open.
The story this time took a little longer to unfold, but the ending was all so familiar. It came despite the rust of inactivity and the pain in a left knee that was surgically repaired after the Masters and may cause him to miss the British next month.
That didnít stop Woods and neither, ultimately, did Mediate. The ride was wild and the show was great, but in the end it was Woods standing on the 18th green with the U.S. Open trophy in his hands.
Thereís no sense debating the greatness that is Tiger Woods anymore. If we werenít past that point already, Woods took us past it in one magical week.
All both we and Mediate can do is appreciate it.

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