“I am Tiger Woods” was a 1996 commercial campaign by Nike that inspired popular culture, and the confidence imbued in that statement never seemed truer for golf’s most expressive superstar than it did at the U.S. Open just over seven years ago.
In 2008, Woods captivated the world by tying Rocco Mediate, on the 18th hole at Torrey Pines after sinking a 15-foot birdie putt to lengthen the tournament by another day. It was a shot almost everyone watching somehow knew was going down, and the legendary golfer didn’t disappoint with a truly clutch moment. Tiger’s putt forced one more round of play with Mediate. And Woods, who was fighting through an ACL tear and two hairline fractures in his left leg, went on to win the U.S. Open in what could be the final major championship of his storied career. This achievement put him only four behind Jack Nicklaus’ record total of 18.
This year’s tournament at Chambers Bay more resembled a British Open with its rugged terrain and drought-tolerant grass. Woods finished 10-over-par in the first round en route to missing the cut after the second round, while Mediate was nowhere to be seen, having graduated to the Champions Tour. The winner of the 2015 U.S. Open was, of course, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth, the youngest winner of the national championship since Bobby Jones in 1923.
An Extended Weekend to Remember
Folks often forget that an Englishman named Lee Westwood was paired with Tiger during the 2008 Open’s final round, and if Westwood had also hit his birdie shot on the 18th, then Monday would have featured a three-man playoff round. That could’ve made things far more complicated but also quite entertaining.
To start the playoff round, Woods’ ball struck the fairway on the first hole after missing it completely in the first four rounds, and he had double-bogeyed that hole three times during the tournament. This shot caused Mediate to jokingly exclaim, “Oh, so now you decide to hit this fairway!” A movie script couldn’t have read better than the way events played out after that. Tiger jumped out to an early lead, but a rough stretch on the back nine — in addition to three straight birdies by Rocco — forced Woods to play from behind again on the final hole. Mediate scored par on that one and Tiger tied things up with a birdie after just missing an eagle that would have won him the tournament. From there it was onto a sudden-death elimination hole as the sun continued its descent. Woods finally claimed victory on the par-4 seventh after Rocco misread a shot that would have forced yet another playoff hole.
This moment in time, when you look back, seems like the climax of a Greek tragedy. This was Tiger’s peak preceding his downfall after being on top of the sporting world. If you had talked to any golf commentator at the time they would have told you that Tiger was in the hunt for Nicklaus’ record. Shoot, if Woods could win a major with a torn ACL and two fractures, then what would he be capable of after recovering?
The Fall From Grace
As things went afterward, we will never know because he never did. Tiger began a fall from grace during Thanksgiving of 2009 that would see him dragged through the tabloids and into a messy divorce. He lost nearly everything: most of his sponsorships, his confidence on the course, many friends and, his life as he had previously known it. Any sense of godhood he possessed before and during Torrey Pines quickly evaporated in the process. Woods has dodged the national spotlight ever since, and it has mostly avoided him (save for another public breakup with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn) because he stopped winning majors.
Mediate, on the other hand, is living a stable and quiet life on the Champions Tour, which is reserved for golfers over the age of 50. He’s never again achieved the level of fame that followed him in the summer of 2008, but he was never the kind to need the type of adulation that Woods probably became accustomed to. Golf now has other rising talents such as Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth who have taken up the superstar mantle. “I am Tiger Woods” doesn’t tug at our heartstrings in quite the same way anymore, but we can still hold onto a weekend of perfection that will never be erased.