U.S. Open title will be decided by Tiger's mind vs. his knee

SAN DIEGO -- After 34,107 strikings of the golf ball across four days by 156 of the best golfers on the planet, the U.S. Open came down to this:

One man. One putt. One chance to play on.

The last man standing was the first name in golf, Tiger Woods. The last stroke played was his 73rd of the day, and it started 12 feet from the cup on the 18th hole.

The stakes were very big and very simple: make it, and Woods would force a Monday playoff with remarkable Rocco Mediate; miss it, and Woods would have to live with his first come-from-ahead Sunday loss in a major.

Amid complete silence and palpable tension, he swung the Scotty Cameron putter back to the instep of his right shoe, then forward to the outside of his left. The Swooshed ball was on its way across the crusty Torrey Pines grass.

Any doubt where it would end up?

"I've been caddying for this guy for 10 years," said Steve Williams, with a "What do you think?" smile.

Yet the inevitability of the Woods birdie clashed with the celebration its author unleashed afterward. He furiously pumped both fists. He bellowed so ferociously that you could have fit a Callaway Big Bertha head in his mouth. He was as stoked as the thousands who stood screaming all around him, once again awed by Woods' will when the chips are down.

That celebration told the true story of Sunday, and of this U.S. Open: Tiger has never had to work this hard to win a major. Never had more to overcome. Never dealt with a bigger physical challenge than the one presented by his chronically painful left knee.

Whatever is going on with that joint, it seems worse than two-month-old soreness after arthroscopic surgery. But the knee's owner isn't exactly turning over his medical records to the media. Only Woods and a select few of his closest confidantes know what level of pain he's playing through.

"A lot," said his swing coach, Hank Haney. "He's the toughest guy I've ever seen.

"I can't believe he made it around 72 holes, but he did. And he'll make it 90. Or 91, or 92, or whatever it takes."

That seems to be the case here. No disrespect to the entertaining Mediate, but this Open has boiled down to Woods' titanium mind vs. Woods' troublesome knee. The battle continues, with neither side surrendering.

The knee pushed the mind to the brink Sunday, but couldn't close the deal.

"Oh, I was going to finish," Woods said. But it was going to take dozens of winces and limps to go the distance.

The knee dragged Woods down to a 73, his worst round as a Sunday leader in 14 majors. It helped turn the usual fourth-round coronation into a de facto comeback -- Woods only led outright for three of the 18 holes, throwing away his advantage immediately.

He once again made goulash of the opening hole, taking his third double-bogey of the tournament. (Woods might as well spot Mediate 2 strokes Monday on the first tee and get it over with.) Then he followed that with a bogey on No. 2, putting himself into chase mode.

The knee also contributed to a stark reversal of fortune on the 13th hole -- an eagle Saturday that triggered an astounding closing run, a bogey Sunday that wrested control of the tourney from his hands.

This time around, Woods played the par-5 13th and the shortened par-4 14th in strange fashion. He tried to crank one 275 yards to the front edge of the green on 13 and double-crossed it into an aloe patch on the side of a hill. Then he passed on the chance to go for the green off the tee from 277 yards on the 14th.

Part of the Woods legend is going for the gusto, especially when it involves crushing something off the tee. He rarely holds back. And when the USGA moved the 14th tee way up to give golfers the chance of driving the green, it figured to play right into Woods' bag.

He explained his decision by saying the yardage was perfectly wrong for every conceivable strategy.

"I was perfectly caught between clubs," Woods said.

I won't argue with the most analytical player in the game, but it just seemed so un-Tiger to lay up and play for a safe par when he really needed a birdie.

Woods wound up getting the birdie he needed at the end, of course. But even that came the desperately hard way.

He tried to cut his drive -- Haney said the most painful shot for Woods is that cut he likes to use in pressure situations -- and pushed it into a trap on the left fairway. Then he splattered a bad 9-iron right and into the rough. From there, Tiger had to find the magic -- beating down on a 60-degree wedge to backspin it out of the cabbage somehow.

"It turned out perfect," Woods said.

So did the putt, allowing him to play another day. He'll be a prohibitive favorite Monday, given his 10-1 career playoff record (2-0 in majors). He hasn't lost a playoff in a decade.

But unless Mediate blows up right out of the box, this will continue to be a chore and a challenge. Haney said Woods' medical people are reducing his swelling after every round, but then it blows up again once he starts to play.

And in the meantime, Woods hasn't been physically able to work on the shots that clearly have troubled him, most obviously off the tee. He has hit just 17 of 28 fairways the past two days, spraying shots to all fields with his driver and 3-wood.

"Once he gets a little off, you can't go and hit balls to correct it," Haney said. "When the warm-up session is the practice session, there's not much you can do."

No, Tiger Woods will have to win this one with his will more than his swing. Mind vs. knee, Round 5. And if it comes down to one man and one putt one more time, you have to like the guy's chances.

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