As others faltered, Woods held it together to take Open lead

SAN DIEGO -- Tiger Woods had just sprayed his tee shot on the 13th hole somewhere in the general vicinity of Encinitas, well right and not well done.

It came to rest next to a white concession tent, which was apt. At that moment it seemed time for a concession speech.

Tiger just didn't have it. After 48 jaw-clenching holes of this 108th U.S. Open, that was the dispiriting realization sinking into the raucous Torrey Pines gallery, as well as the nation at large. The world's greatest competitor was trying like hell to stay in contention, but his aching left knee wouldn't permit Tiger to be Tiger.

At that moment he was hanging onto a cliff's edge by his fingertips. He was 1-over-par for the tournament, a bumpy 3 over for the day and 5 shots out of the lead. He was grimacing and limping around like Fred Sanford. Cheers for leader Rocco Mediate were ringing in his ears -- a taste of the medicine Tiger has made so many others swallow.

And now he'd gone and shoved his drive on the 614-yard par-5 into jail. Woods shuffled around the concession tent, searching for a place to drop. If someone had gone to the counter and bought him a $6 cup of Michelob right then, he probably would have accepted it gladly.

Tiger was done.

But he never got the memo.

Ninety jaw-dropping minutes later, Mediate was playing reporter in the interview area as Woods was stepping off the podium after trying to explain his impossibly dramatic charge to take the 54-hole lead at 3-under-par. Mediate spoke for the entire human race:

"Mr. Woods, Mr. Woods! Right here! Are you COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR MIND?"

Woods laughed and the two slapped hands. On Sunday, Woods will leave Mediate among the mortals on the way to his 14th major title, and Rocco won't feel bad. He knows brilliance when it blows past him.

The greatest part of Tiger Woods is the fact that he couldn't spell surrender if you stuck a dictionary in front of him and opened it to that page. He never gives up. While faint-hearted fellows like Phil Mickelson were collapsing Saturday at the first sign of adversity, a wounded Tiger regrouped to deliver the greatest six holes of his absurdly accomplished career.

Golf gets no better than this. Hell, sport gets no better.

This was Jordan scoring 38 with the flu. This was Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases after going deep to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. This was Willis Reed limping into Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

Except Reed only played the first couple of minutes before leaving the stage to his galvanized teammates, and Gibbie's moment only took one swing. Tiger went more than four hours and 70 swings on that bad wheel without giving in.

In fact, he dug in and produced a succession of hero shots that rank among the most memorable of his life. He carded two eagles and a chip-in birdie in six holes, in an event that traditionally surrenders red numbers as often as Bill Belichick smiles.

"The stuff he does," Mediate said, "it's unreal."

He began bending reality at that concession tent. Woods finally found a spot to drop, a good 30 feet away from the tent to give himself clearance around the television tower standing between him and the green. He grabbed a 5-iron, dug his spikes into the hardpan and blew everyone's mind.

As the ball sizzled through the San Diego air and landed on the green 200 yards away, a fat guy in an orange shirt and a Kappa Alpha Psi hat stuck two fists in the air and bellowed, "Hell yeah! Hell yeah! Hell yeah, boy!"

Someone else yelled, "That was a bad-ass shot, Tiger!"

From there, Woods said he was hoping to "maybe somehow steal a 4 out of there."

Three? That was out of the question.

From the back of the 13th green, Woods faced your routine, 66-foot, breaking bomb of a putt for eagle. When he hit it, the speed looked good. As it tracked toward the hole, the line looked good. As caddy Steve Williams started backpedaling with a fist in the air, you knew the putt was good.

Woods pumped both fists and yelled, as jacked as you'll ever see him. But the crowd explosion drowned out whatever was coming out of his mouth. It was the closest golf has ever come to sounding like fourth-and-goal at LSU's Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night.

Suddenly Woods had returned to red numbers at 1-under-par. And just as suddenly he backpedaled by bogeying the 14th hole after another dreadfully errant tee shot.

Woods persevered through 15 and 16, parring both. Then at 17, he drove himself back to the brink of disaster, coming way out of his swing and pushing the ball way right as pain etched itself on his face.

As Woods gimped up the fairway, he looked more frail than at any point in his bulletproof career. Forget hitting it with any authority; just walking to his ball was a chore.

But he sucked it up and smacked a 7-iron left of the green in the heavy rough, roughly 30 feet from the pin. Woods grabbed his wedge, stepped in, flipped the ball up into the air, watched it take one hop and then abruptly disappear into the cup.

As slow-motion as that famous chip on the 16th hole at Augusta in 2005, when the ball dropped into the cup on its final rotation, this was the opposite. It was gone from view before anyone knew it.

Woods just laughed. So did Williams as the crowd erupted again. He got lucky and knew it. An inch in either direction and that ball scampers well clear of the cup.

"I hit it too hard, came out hot," Woods said. "And one hop and it went in. I mean, realistically, I should have probably had about an eight-footer coming back down the hill, but got away with one there."

Better to be lucky than good, as they say. But on the next hole, Woods went back to being good. Insanely good.

Standing at the par-5 18th tee, a fan said, "You're inspiring, Tiger." But the evening's inspiration needed a fitting climax, and Woods delivered as only he can.

He drilled his drive into the middle of the fairway, then sculpted a remarkably soft 5-wood onto the green. It came to rest about 40 feet from the hole and on top of a ridge.

The 18th at Torrey Pines had played the easiest of any hole, and Woods has owned par 5s his entire career. But he'd blown two opportunities by parring this one Thursday and Friday. This time, with a massive gallery surrounding the green and watching from the balconies of the adjacent Torrey Pines Lodge, Woods zapped a charged crowd with one more lightning bolt.

It took about eight seconds for the putt to track perfectly toward its inevitable destination at the bottom of the cup. While bedlam rained down one more time, the response to this eagle from the artist was a simple fist raised chest-high.

He might have been too worn out and too sore for anything more.

"It's all spontaneous," Woods said. "On 13 I went nuts and on 18 it was just like, 'sweet.'

"That's it. I can't tell you what's coming."

I can tell you what's coming Sunday, if the knee is willing to go one more round: Woods holding the U.S. Open trophy after winning his 14th major.

And if the knee isn't willing, I expect Tiger Woods to do it anyway.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.