Just 12 feet of tricky terrain remained before the ball began tumbling toward the hole, leaving the Nike swoosh prominent with every revolution. But as Tiger Woods rose out of his stance and thousands around the green held their breath, those fleeting moments might truly be measured in days, weeks, months and years.
To some, it was the greatest 72nd-hole putt in a major championship, a confluence of events that were surreal and yet standard for Woods. Still, the ball that bounced along the green, caught the edge and dropped in for a birdie did not even win the 2008 U.S. Open for Woods.
Despite Woods’ euphoric celebration and the bedlam that ensued around Torrey Pines Golf Course, all it meant was survival, with an excruciating playoff the next day against Rocco Mediate.
The painful prelude to all that was a well-kept secret, as Woods could barely walk in the weeks leading up to a tournament he had been pointing toward for years.
Now, 10 years removed from what surprisingly turned out to be the last of Woods’ 14 major titles, we spoke to the players, caddies and people who witnessed what very well might have been Tiger’s most remarkable victory.
Where do we begin? Tiger’s lead-up to the 2008 U.S. Open
When the 2008 season began, Woods had just celebrated his 32nd birthday and was coming off a remarkable year in which he won seven times, including the PGA Championship. The run continued into the new calendar year with wins in six straight tournaments, but ended when he finished fifth at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral.
Two days after finishing second by three strokes to Trevor Immelman at the Masters, Woods announced he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, portrayed as a simple procedure to repair cartilage damage. It was his third operation on the knee going back to 1994, and he was expected to miss a month while he recovered.
When Woods called Hank Haney to tell him about the surgery, it was the first time the coach, who worked with Tiger from 2004 to 2010, was aware of it.
Haney: “The surgery was meant to clean things out, but it made it a lot worse. It set him back. Now he can’t practice. How in a few weeks is he going to walk? He was going to try and play the Memorial [two weeks before the U.S. Open]. My initial thought when I first saw him was, ‘This isn’t going to happen.'”
When Dr. Thomas Rosenberg, an orthopedic surgeon based in Park City, Utah, performed the procedure, he also discovered Woods’ anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) was fully torn.
Tiger Woods: “I had ruptured my ACL in July the previous year, and I played on it with no ACL and my meniscus was just, I was trashing it. My leg was sloppy. I knew I had to go because I had fragments there, but my surgeons were saying that I also have to have the knee reconstructed. And I said, ‘Well, we’ll just do a cleanup job first,’ because I wanted to play the next three major championships.
“When I came back [after the procedure], I was doing a photo shoot, and I was hitting a shot from a downhill lie and that’s when I cracked [the tibia in my left leg]. I was hurting and I didn’t know what was going on, so I went to get an X-ray first and that’s when it showed I had that ‘Y’ with a lightning bolt at the bottom of it and I had fractured it. From there, they were saying I was pretty much done for the year. I said, ‘Ah, I don’t know about that.’ … I was hoping to get through the majors, have the reconstructive surgery after the PGA, and I’d have nine months to get ready for Augusta. But nothing worked out that way.”
“It was just constant. The treatment was constant throughout the night. I slept on the massage table, I had my knee drained, iced, elevated, worked on, just trying to get as much inflammation out as I could.”
Tiger Woods on playing through pain during the 2008 U.S. Open
Haney: “Tiger did that whole thing where they do the fake name and nobody knows he’s the one getting an MRI. They get a doctor in Orlando to do it. Then Dr. Rosenberg flew in a few days later. He’s explaining about the MRI, it’s on his laptop and he’s showing there are two stress fractures, as well as the torn ACL. He’s showing us everything, but Tiger is not really listening. … He’s limping out of a golf cart to go hit 40 golf balls. How are we going to go play in a major championship in a few weeks?
“Tiger looks up and says, ‘I’m playing the U.S. Open and I’m going to win.’ Just like that. Then he says, ‘C’mon Hank, let’s go practice.’ The determination was absolutely incredible and clearly I’ll never forget it.”
The importance of playing at Torrey Pines was two-fold for Woods.
Woods: “That was the first professional tournament I ever went to. My dad [Earl] took me to the old Andy Williams [the PGA Tour event now known as the Farmers Insurance Open began at Torrey Pines in 1969; from then until 1988, entertainer Andy Williams’ name was part of the tournament title]. To me, Torrey Pines, the U.S. Open there, was special because that’s where I learned about professional golf. I remember driving with my dad down to Torrey Pines [Woods lived outside of Anaheim] and I’ll never forget watching Andy Bean hit a 1-iron or a 2-iron to the last hole. I remember watching John Cook, Marco [Mark O’Meara], all the SoCal boys. To me, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines was like going home. It meant more to me.”
Learning to play through the pain
Only eight days before the start of the U.S. Open, Woods and Haney left Florida and flew to California, where the golfer played nine holes in a cart at Torrey Pines with no fanfare. He was wearing a knee brace that Rosenberg had given him with instructions to keep the number of balls he was hitting to a minimum. Woods and Haney then drove to Newport Beach to play at Big Canyon Country Club. A Saturday morning round did not go well.
Haney: “They gave him one of those big football lineman braces. He’s wearing that thing and trying to practice and play, but he can’t hit the ball. He played nine holes and lost like every ball. He had six or seven balls and lost them all, shot 47 or something. It was terrible. Didn’t even finish the last hole. Some of that was the brace and that was the last day of the brace.”
Woods: “I was still trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to try and play with a knee brace. My knee was obviously moving all over the place and [the tibia] was broken … so, I played and shot 50-some-odd [score] and then, on the way down there [to Torrey Pines], I threw it in the trash and was done with it. I said, ‘All right, I’m going to have to figure out how to play without a knee brace with this leg.'”
Rob McNamara, vice president at Tiger Woods Ventures [TGR]: “One thing I could see was he kept trying to find a swing that he could manage around. The thing he kept coming back to was, his short game was still there. He could still putt. He’d hit a few, try to manufacture something, then he’d go to the putting green, chipping green, and that was still perfect. Then it was an awful lot of guts and willpower. Almost every day, I was concerned for him. Once he realized he couldn’t hurt himself any further … he decided he could manage the pain. It was just hard to watch.”
Steve Williams, Woods’ caddie from 1999 to 2011: “I had already had a heads up from Hank Haney. ‘Stevie, Tiger’s got no right to be playing in this tournament.’ I’ll never forget those words. He went out there on the Sunday and I could absolutely see the discomfort he was in. The golf was not of the quality you would expect from Tiger Woods. No doubt, he was struggling.”
The USGA decided for the first time to group several of the top players based on their world ranking, so No. 1-ranked Woods, No. 2 Phil Mickelson and No. 3 Adam Scott were in the same group for the first two rounds. Mike Davis, then the USGA’s director of rules and competitions (he is now its chief executive), was alarmed when he received a phone call a few days before the U.S. Open from Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg.
Davis: “He called me and asked that I not tell anyone, not even others at the USGA. And I never did, but he said Tiger essentially had a broken leg. I said, ‘What?’ I walked with his group as a rules official the last three days and I remember thinking that this guy, from a mental standpoint, is unbelievable.”
Thursday: The first round
Woods shot 72 to open the tournament, and it was the first time he had walked 18 holes since the final round of the Masters. But it was far more interesting than his 1-over effort suggested. He made two double-bogeys, finished four strokes back of surprise first-round leaders Kevin Streelman and Justin Hicks, and played his last nine holes without a birdie.
Adam Scott: “If you take yourself back to that point in time, it was a very different set of circumstances surrounding all of us, and especially in the middle of the most amazing run of golf we had seen over 10 years. So, it was obviously a heavily anticipated opening two rounds. With Phil, the hometown boy, Tiger from up the road but also having won Torrey however many times he’d won there, and me going along for the ride.
“Going to the first tee Thursday was probably one of the unforgettable moments in my career; I don’t think I’ve seen a scene quite like it. It was like 25 deep the entire hole. … It was more like the energy of a football game than teeing off at any golf tournament. There was real atmosphere there. Somehow, I hit it in the fairway and Tiger made double at the first. That calmed me down nicely.”
“I asked him on three separate occasions if it was the right thing to carry on. And I got the same reply each time, ‘F— you, Stevie, I’m winning this tournament.’ After three times, I wasn’t going to say it to him again.”
Steve Williams, Woods’ caddie from 1999 to 2011
Phil Mickelson: “I think [Tiger] started the tournament with a double-bogey. It was remarkable the way he fought and stayed in it. When you put yourself that far behind … it’s just so hard to make birdies in a U.S. Open, and he started with a double and just played remarkable golf on a hard golf course.”
Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s longtime caddie: “The shot that changed his entire tournament around was at the fourth hole [a 488-yard par-4 that runs parallel to the Pacific]. It’s probably the toughest hole on the course. [Tiger is] in the right fairway bunker off the tee. The pin is front right, and he hits a 4- or 5-iron to about 5 feet and made a birdie. I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow, that’s some way to the right the ship on the hardest hole on the course.’ Of the shots I remember other people hitting over the years, that probably has to be in the top 5 all time.”
Dottie Pepper, an ESPN television analyst who walked with the group: “At first, I think he disguised his pain really well, but it got worse. The remarkable thing, as he started to tell the story, was, if you are doing that much rehab after every round and every night, you are not sleeping. You don’t get normal sleep and how do you never let the doubts creep in?”
Williams: “I think I asked him on three separate occasions if it was the right thing to carry on. And I got the same reply each time, ‘F— you, Stevie, I’m winning this tournament.’ After three times, I wasn’t going to say it to him again.”
Friday: The second round
Woods shot 68, but it started poorly. Along with Mickelson and Scott, he began on the 10th hole and bogeyed two of his first three. He got those two strokes back with an eagle at the 13th but made two more bogeys coming in. Then he got on a front-side roll, birdieing the first while playing his second shot from a cart path and went on to make four more birdies, trailing leader Stuart Appleby by a shot and in a tie for second with Rocco Mediate and Sweden’s Robert Karlsson.
Mackay: “We had been paired with Tiger before when he was hurting, but never like this. I remember him driving it off the 18th tee and he looked ill because he was in so much pain. It was hard to watch in a sense; and yet, there he was, near the top of the leaderboard. You had so much respect for what he was doing. He had a look like, ‘They are going to have to carry me out of here.'”
Scott: “Tiger, back then, because he beat us all the time … we didn’t like him that much. The skeptic in me said he’s a great showman. Even when he was playing great golf back in the day, he was milking everything to his advantage. Putts that were always a little bit low, he’d raise the putter and walk out and the crowd would be really into it. He used that to psyche out other players. The skeptic in me thought he was putting it on a bit, but I don’t really know the extent that his leg was damaged. Obviously, like my hand was broken [an injury suffered pre-tournament when it got caught in a car door], his leg was and he thought he was good enough to play and he won. He knew what he was doing. He got it around somehow.”
Saturday: A surreal third round
Playing with Karlsson, a 38-year-old European Tour veteran, Woods again made a double-bogey 6 on the opening hole. He shot 2-over-par 37 for the first nine holes. When he bogeyed the 12th, he was 3 over for his round and three strokes back of Mediate. Then those last six holes happened. An eagle at the 13th. A bogey at the 14th. With an awkward lie beside a bunker at the par-4 17th, he chipped in for a birdie. Then, to cap it off, Woods drained a 60-footer at the 18th for an eagle for the third-round 70.
Woods: “[After the poor start], I was 4 back and I was honestly trying to not have that gap widen. If I could keep it the same, great. If I could narrow the gap, even better. And then I make the putt on 13, I bogey 14 with a tee shot way right, and then 15, that was the one when it really hurt. There were a couple of shots where I could feel the bone in my leg break. And the tee shot on 15 was one of them. I felt it crack.
“But I parred 15, parred 16 and then hit it way right on 17. I was just trying to get the ball into the left bunker and it ended up on the slope, which was even better because I could control the shot, and it came out really hot. If you read my lips, I say, ‘Bite.’ And it one-hopped in. And then 18, I just tried to hit a big slice, aimed as far left as I could. If I get it in play, I knew I could [reach the green in 2] because they had the tee all the way up and so I knew it would be a 3-wood or 5-wood into the green. And it hurt past impact again and I was pretty sore after 15 and I had to stop for a bit. But I hit the fairway, then hit the 5-wood onto the green and, lo and behold, I make the bomb.”
Gareth Lord, Karlsson’s caddie: “The putt on the green, I watched the whole thing, and halfway there, I knew it was in. We came off the course, Robert and I looked at each other … and we went straight to the bar and each had a large Johnnie Walker Blue. That was it. It was about $90 a shot, I promise you.”
The final round: ‘The pain … was constant’
Woods was leading the U.S. Open with one round to play. At the time, no one outside of his inner circle knew he was playing with two stress fractures in his tibia, the main source of his pain, on top of the ACL issues. Each night, Woods received treatment from his then-trainer, Keith Kleven, with the idea of trying to get ready to play the next day.
Woods, when asked if he ever thought he might not be able to continue: “Not I can’t [go on], but, ‘Boy, this hurts.’ … Whatever backswing I made, whatever downswing I made, the pain only got me just after impact. My whole focus for the week was to virtually try and hit perfect shots because nothing was going to stop me from making quality impact. Now, post impact, I may not be able to walk for a little bit or it may throb, but the impact part of it I could control. So all my focus was on making proper impact and if it hurt, it hurt.
“Sam [his daughter, who was days away from her first birthday] was there. She had her little wooden club and she was hitting against the floor and it kept me from thinking about golf. But I could never get myself away from thinking about the pain. It was just constant. The treatment was constant throughout the night. I slept on the massage table, I had my knee drained, iced, elevated, worked on, just trying to get as much inflammation out as I could. Then, I would somehow start activating it in the morning and that was the hardest part because it was so wobbly. Once I finally got going, it was OK.”
Haney: “I’m not really sure how to explain it, but it was evident that, because of the injury, it was almost like, ‘This is the ultimate challenge. This is something that nobody could ever do, but if I could do it, that it would be the biggest mountain I’ve ever climbed.’ That motivation was really strong for him.”
“Every single day, unless I don’t leave the house, I get a question about it. … It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course, period.”
Rocco Mediate on facing Tiger Woods in U.S. Open playoff
Tiger led by 1 over Lee Westwood, 2 over Mediate and 3 over Geoff Ogilvy and D.J. Trahan, and played the final round with Westwood, an Englishman who had climbed back from falling to 200th in the world. Mediate was in the group ahead with Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion. Once again, Woods doubled the first, then added a bogey at the second to drop 3 shots in two holes. Woods didn’t claim a share of the lead again until the 11th hole, but he bogeyed the par-5 13th and 15th to drop a shot back of Mediate.
Mackay: “The overwhelming memory I have of that U.S. Open is that Tiger carried so much weight in those days, guys would have trouble getting over the psychological hump of separating themselves on the leaderboard. I thought it was the ultimate week where Tiger’s legend kept the scores low. The fact that 1 under ended up playing off was so shocking to a lot of us there. It spoke to his legend. The course was gettable. The fairways were not overwhelmingly narrow. The greens were not firm. But no one got away from Tiger. It’s no disrespect to anyone there. You have it or you don’t.”
Westwood: “Sometimes he grimaced, sometimes he didn’t. It was very on and off. We are quite pally and we talked all the way around and I kept asking him if he was all right. ‘Not really’ was as far as he went. I thought he had just pulled a muscle or something; I didn’t think it was anywhere near as bad as we later found out. I suppose that’s Tiger for you.”
Final round, continued: The crucial 18th
A birdie at the par-5, 573-yard finishing hole would have all but sealed the U.S. Open for Mediate, but he could only manage a par. That meant Woods needed to force an 18-hole playoff and match Mediate at 283, 1 under par. That goal became far more difficult when Woods not only missed the fairway off the tee and found a bunker to the left, but hit a poor layup shot with a 9-iron that missed the fairway on the right.
Left with 95 yards to the front of the green guarded by a pond, and 101 to the hole and playing out of the rough, Woods believed it was a 56-degree sand wedge shot; Williams knew the distance called for that, but argued instead for Woods to hit less club, a 60-degree lob wedge.
Williams: “You get the yardage and it 100 percent says it’s a sand wedge. Grass was still wet because the trees had not allowed the sun to get there. … [But] everything told me in my gut that in order to get that ball close, it was with a lob wedge. Tiger couldn’t see the rationale. Usually in that situation, when you’re playing, you want to be decisive. You don’t want to be debating back and forth and create any doubt. But I was fully convinced, and I don’t think we ever discussed a shot for that length of time.”
Woods: “Well, there were a couple of things that happened where I got lucky. One, that was still in the era of square grooves [which help get more spin on the ball but have since been outlawed]. And two, somebody had hit out of that same exact spot sometime that week and I was actually in a divot. I could get clean contact, so I could get my sand wedge on the back of the ball so I knew I could spin it. Stevie convinced me to hit 60 and I needed to hit it as hard as I could to get as much spin on the ball as I possibly could.”
Before Woods played his third shot, Westwood was in the fairway contemplating his approach. He, too, had found a bunker off the tee, then laid up into the fairway before hitting his third onto the green. Now, it was Woods’ turn.
Mackay, who was watching on TV: “I remember when he laid it up. The pin was in front and I thought he was in all kinds of trouble. You just wouldn’t think he could generate enough spin to keep the ball around the hole. I remember reading that he had this conversation with Steve to hit the hard 60 and generate as much spin as possible. To me, the third shot was as crucial as the putt.”
Ogilvy: “It’s ridiculous to make a birdie from there.”
Woods purposely aimed a bit to the right, in case the ball came up short; but the ball landed just past pin high, stopped, came back and rolled ever so slightly toward the hole. He had left himself a 12-footer to tie. Westwood’s approach came to rest 20 feet away, but above and to the left of the hole if looking from the fairway. He had a downhill putt that he didn’t hit hard enough, the ball trailing off before reaching the cup, leaving the stage to Woods.
Mackay: “I always thought part of Tiger’s genius was his ability to read greens, and the ability to read greens is the most underrated skill in golf. I was watching with my wife and I remember telling her, he could push it, pull it or miss, but he probably won’t misread it.”
Williams: “It’s funny, you’re on the green there and I’m just going through my mind thinking about tomorrow’s round already. He had an amazing ability to hole putts on the 18th green to tie or win. He seldom missed one. I didn’t have any doubt in my mind that he would make that putt.”
Woods: “I changed my stroke on that one a little bit because it was going to be so bouncy. I hit up on it a little bit to try and get the ball rolling earlier. Growing up on poa annua [the type of grass on the greens], that’s what I’ve always really done. I hit it more with my hands and I made sure I released it a lot. And I did, and I got the ball rolling and it was bouncing all over the place. The stroke felt good. And then the ball took forever to break because it was bouncing most of the time.”
Westwood: “The impressive thing about Tiger is when he’s not playing well, or not even feeling well, he can still find a way to get around, and that is what great players do. He hung in there, gave himself a chance on the 18th. And it’s funny, but after I had failed with my effort, I never felt for a second that Tiger was going to miss his. Seriously, if it had been match play, I’d have almost given it to him. Why was I so sure? Well, just because he was making everything around that stage of his career, and especially that day. It was one of those classic Tiger moments.”
Pat Perez, who qualified for the 2008 U.S. Open and grew up playing and working at Torrey Pines: “The putt wasn’t easy at all. Downhill on s—ty greens. I grew up on that stuff, it’s brutal. You can see it bouncing the whole time. You’re hoping it stays on line. And it did. He’s made that so many times, it’s like nothing.”
Mediate: “Do I want him to miss it? Absolutely, I want him to miss it. … I want to be the U.S. Open champion. I played my butt off. If he misses, it’s mine. But I knew he’d make it. And when he made it, I was like, ‘Yeah, all right.’ I expected that to happen. Anybody else, I’m already waiting for the trophy. Anybody else, I don’t care who they are, and it’s not even disrespectful. They’re not him. Especially in that day and age, what he was.”
After making his putt, Woods arched backward and shook his fists with putter in hand as he screamed to the sky: “I vividly remember one thing about that celebration. I remember screaming and I remember realizing I was screaming at the sky. I was looking straight up. And then I put my head down quickly because I was wondering what I was doing.”
The playoff: Everyone’s watching
For the third time in Woods’ career, he was headed to a playoff in a major. Woods finally parred the first hole and build a two-shot lead through 9 but made bogeys at the 11th and 12th. Mediate birdied the 14th and 15th to take a one-shot lead. When Woods narrowly missed a birdie try at the 17th, he was again faced with being one shot down playing the 18th. Mediate again settled for a par on the home hole. Woods, who this time hit the green in 2, knocked his eagle putt to win by 4 feet, then made the birdie putt to force sudden-death after both players shot 71.
Mediate: “One thing I noticed during the day … Tiger’s fist pumps are notorious and remarkable and there’s times when they should happen because it’s so exciting. It didn’t happen once on Monday. Wonder why that was. I haven’t asked him. Not once. He had several opportunities to stick it to me. He didn’t. I don’t know why.”
Streelman, who held a share of the first-round lead: “The Travelers Championship had a [charter] plane for players to go from the U.S. Open to their tournament. So, on Monday morning, we were taking off right when the playoff started. Every person on the plane — the players, their families — was watching the playoff on their TVs. When we land in Hartford, Tiger and Rocco are going into the playoff hole and no one got off the plane. I looked out the window and saw the courtesy carts waiting for us and no one got off the plane until the playoff was over. I’ll never forget that.”
Sudden-death began at the seventh, a dogleg right par-4. If necessary, it would continue to the eighth and then the 18th. Woods hit a drive in the fairway and knocked his approach on the green to about 20 feet, but Mediate hit his drive into a fairway bunker, and then his approach went left and into the spectator grandstand, from which he would receive a free drop.
Davis, one of the USGA rules officials with the group: “We had mandatory drop zones for certain TIOs [temporary immovable obstructions]. I could see where Rocco was going to drop the ball [in the drop zone noted by a white circle], and there was a chance he was going to drop it and have it bounce out. Many players think if it goes outside of the painted drop zone, they have to re-drop it. Or if it goes closer to the hole, they have to re-drop it. That’s not the case with those drop zones — as long as it’s within two club lengths from where it strikes the golf course. Sure enough, it bounced out of the circle, and Rocco goes to pick it up, and I go ‘Rocco!’ He says, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Ball’s in play.’ And I’ve often thought, oh my God, you talk about rules fiascos. That would have been horrible. The U.S. Open basically would have ended there. It would have been a one-stroke penalty.”
It almost became anti-climactic at this point, as Mediate pitched onto the green but missed a long par putt. Woods lagged his birdie putt toward the hole and tapped in for the victory.
None of Woods’ major championship victories were like this one, the one he said was his “hardest, by far.” He had won a Masters by 12, a U.S. Open by 15 and an Open by 8. For the most part, Woods at least appeared to be in control, even if there were some notable slips along the way before righting himself. But the 2008 U.S. Open saw wincing, limping and an inordinate number of poor shots. Over 72 holes, Woods had 42 pars, 17 birdies, 3 eagles, four doubles and 10 bogeys to get to -1.
Woods: “If you look back on it, there was one thing I did well the entire week — I made everything. You look at the 2008 U.S. Open, the 2000 U.S. Open, the 2000 British Open and the 1997 Masters, in those four majors, I honestly don’t remember missing a putt inside 10 feet. I had one of those special weeks and the 2008 U.S. Open was one of them. I felt so good with the putter. It was just a matter of, ‘Can I get myself on the green in due time to take advantage of it?’ And I had that one stretch on Friday on the front nine where I got myself in position and I made everything.”
Mediate: “Every single day, unless I don’t leave the house, I get a question about it. Everyone says, ‘I was at Torrey on Monday, it was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen, the way you played.’ I’m like, yeah, but I still lost. I keep watching the replays. … ‘But it looked like you were having so much fun.’ You think? I get to play for the national Open against the No. 1 player in the world on a Monday for a playoff. What’s not fun about this? It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course, period.”
Two days after the playoff, Woods announced to the world he had a double stress fracture in his left tibia and would need surgery. ACL replacement surgery occurred a week later, ending his season at just seven events — with five victories. He would not return to competition until nine months later.
ESPN feature producer Tory Zawacki Roy contributed to this report.