Tiger's swing coach believes '08 Open win was Tiger's greatest ever

SAN DIEGO -- As thousands of fans cheered the most famous client a golf instructor could ever teach, Hank Haney stood off to the side of the 18th green Monday, trying to talk above the noise, a tear forming in his eye, his voice cracking with emotion.

Haney knows better than just about anyone the difficulty of Woods' U.S. Open playoff victory at Torrey Pines.

Analyze all Woods' wins and, Haney said, it is not even close.

"This was the greatest performance he's ever had," said Haney, who has been there for several of them, including six major championships. "I didn't know he could play 18 holes, let alone 91."

Haney, who has worked with Woods since 2004, was at Augusta National when Woods chipped in from behind the 16th green, then defeated Chris DiMarco in a 2005 playoff. He was at St. Andrews that summer for Woods' second victory at the home of golf. He was at Hoylake a year later when Woods hit one driver the entire tournament on his way to victory, the first since the passing of his father, Earl.

But this was different. Much different.

On a creaky left knee that gave him far more fits than he ever let on, Woods birdied the 72nd hole Sunday to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate. Woods blew a three-stroke lead with eight holes remaining in Monday's playoff and trailed by one with three to go. The world's No. 1-ranked player then made another birdie at the last hole to tie Mediate and force sudden death in what will go down as one of the game's most compelling tournaments.

A par on the first extra hole, the par-4 seventh, was good enough to clinch Woods' 14th major title as Mediate made a bogey.

"What he had to overcome … the pain he is in," Haney said, shaking his head. "The guy is just so tough. He's just unbelievable. The lack of preparation … It's just got to be his greatest win. I know he feels the same way."

A week ago, Woods played nine holes at Torrey Pines, a simple Monday morning practice round. Little did any of us know that, just two days earlier, Woods had walked nine holes for the first time since an arthroscopic procedure performed on his left knee. Haney rode along in a cart as Woods walked for the first time.

"There were points when I just didn't see him doing this, where I just didn't think this was going to happen," Haney said. "He was limping from the cart to the practice balls and back to the cart. That was the weekend of the Memorial [approximately 16 days ago]. And I didn't think this was going to happen a couple of other times."

A quick timeline:

On the Friday before the Memorial, Woods announced that he would not be committing to Jack Nicklaus' tournament, an event he has won three times and one viewed as a good tune-up for the U.S. Open -- especially as Woods had not played since the Masters.

According to Haney, Woods was barely able to practice. "He would hit no more than 40 or 50 balls at a time," he said.

Two weeks ago, on June 2, Woods said he had yet to play an 18-hole round. Two days later, he played 18 holes in a cart at Torrey Pines, with Haney along for the ride. Three days later, at a course north of San Diego called Big Canyon, Haney coaxed Woods into walking those nine holes for the first time, just to be sure he could do it.

Woods then played nine-hole practice rounds leading up to the tournament, not surprising given his knowledge of the Torrey Pines course, where he has won six Buick Invitationals, including four in a row.

In truth, that was really all Woods could handle, and Haney was concerned.

"He bent over to read a putt for the first time on Thursday," Haney said.

The Thursday that Haney was referring to was the first round of the U.S. Open.

"I mean, he had four three-putts and four double-bogeys and he wins the U.S. Open," Haney said. "I just couldn't be more proud of him."

Now comes the question that has no immediate answer: What price did Woods pay to achieve his third U.S. Open, 14th major title and 65th PGA Tour win?

It became obvious that, despite what Woods said before the tournament, he would not have played the U.S. Open were it not a major championship. His doctor had advised him against playing at all. Pain was evident from the first round on, and Haney said that Woods knew all along it would be that way.

"I'm not really good at listening to doctors' orders too well," Woods said. "So I end up -- hey, I won this week, so it is what it is."

Asked whether doctors told him he could further injure his knee, Woods only nodded in the affirmative. Asked whether he made things worse, Woods said, "Maybe." Still, once the tournament began, he said, there was no withdrawing.

"I wasn't going to bag it," Woods said. "I think everyone knows me well enough that … it's not in my nature. I don't know how to do that. It helped to have the energy from all the fans because there were times when it stung quite a bit. I had a couple of zingers out there, and you're trying to feed off it somehow. You always try to use everything to your advantage.

"It's been sore every day. It's been sore for a while. I just deal with it."

Now what?

Woods can savor the hardware for the next few weeks while he undoubtedly will stay off the tour. He is scheduled to play next week's Buick Open and the AT&T National the following week in Washington, D.C., a tournament he hosts. Both are now in severe doubt. The British Open at Royal Birkdale next month would appear to be his next goal.

"I think I need to shut it down for a little bit here," Woods said, not ruling out anything but not committing to anything, either. "It's a bit sore. I need to take a little bit of a break."

Haney has no idea what is next. He had no answers for what just occurred. The coach of the No. 1-ranked player in the world was still trying to take it all in, having just witnessed every shot Woods hit.

"When this story is told," Haney said, "it will go down as his greatest victory."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.