From the Sidelines: U.S. Open was stuff of legend

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The weekend drama at the U.S. Open not only made for some of the most exhilarating golf in recent memory, but also acted as tremendous theater as it drew legions of viewers previously had no more than a passing interest in the sport. Tiger Woods&8217; triumphant comeback and Rocco Mediate&8217;s chance at history spawned a Monday playoff that served as appointment television for a sport that, quite frankly, rarely makes for such.

Woods and his surgically repaired knee, visibly and audibly ailing as the weekend rolled on, created a storyline reminiscent of Michael Jordan&8217;s 40-point flu game. Tiger Woods, the most transcendent athlete in the history of the game, appeared and sounded more human as each hole of the tournament progressed.

From the sounds of his agonizing grunts off the tee to the lasting images of Tiger at times using a golf club as a cane, there existed plenty of evidence to support the theory that Woods had returned to the course too early.

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While the Woods&8217; storyline was enthralling, equally as compelling was the saga of Mediate. Viewed by many tour followers as the &8220;every man&8221; golfer, the personable and popular 45-year-old Mediate, ranked 157 spots lower than world No. 1 Woods, was in sight of the first major victory of his career.

So Monday&8217;s 18-hole playoff, billed as a &8220;David and Goliath&8221; contest by overzealous and melodramatic NBC commentators, was a match between the accomplished and the anonymous.

Much to the PGA&8217;s delight, the two traded shots all the way to the green of a par five 18th hole. It was there, on the last green at Torrey Pines, that the proverbial clock struck midnight for Rocco Mediate&8217;s &8220;Cinderella&8221; run.

In true Tiger Woods fashion, bad wheel and all, the No. 1 player in golf saw his opening, took advantage and added the 14th major championship of his illustrious career.

For the first time in his career, Woods had to truly overcome something in order to win a tournament. That, as difficult as it may have been, will likely do as much to enhance his legacy as winning the Open itself.

But while the event and its circumstances will provide history more evidence of the greatness that is Tiger Woods, it will likely do little to help Mediate climb from the abyss of obscurity that consumes so many professional athletes.

However, Rocco Mediate&8217;s accomplishment in San Diego should be remembered with much more reverence than usually accompanies typical &8220;what could have been&8221; reflections.

Mediate, aside from being a viable contender for the U.S. Open Championship, was a major player on what became one of the biggest stages in the history of golf.

His circumstances, as much as Tiger&8217;s, served as the architect of a mutli-layered plot that was golf&8217;s most riveting storyline since The Legend of Bagger Vance. And just like any great co-leading man, Mediate played his part with integrity and character to the very end.

What transpired at Torrey Pines over the span of two days captured the attention of millions. Ordinary people with no more than a passing interest in golf were drawn into conversations about Tiger Woods&8217; knee and Rocco Mediate&8217;s chance.

The record books may show it as just another major for Tiger. But this weekend&8217;s U.S. Open finale between Woods and Mediate polarized the sports world and did for golf what the Lakers and Celtics have struggled to do for the NBA.

Jeremy D. Smith is sports editor for The Times. Reach him at (334) 289-4017.