SAN DIEGO -- It took 72 holes of regulation, an 18-hole playoff and one hole of sudden death to arrive at the foregone conclusion.
Yes, Tiger Woods, the overwhelming favorite going into the 108th U.S. Open, delivered at Torrey Pines. The world's No. 1-ranked player won his third Open title and his 14th major title on a course that should be renamed Tiger Pines, for all the trophies he has hoisted on this scrubby mesa overlooking the Pacific.
But it wasn't easy. In fact, it couldn't have been any tougher.
Woods' surgically repaired left knee gave him problems. His driver gave him fits. And Rocco Mediate gave him the fight of his life.
Pushed to the brink by Mediate, a 45-year-old journeyman with nothing to lose, Woods won it with a par on the 91st hole yesterday.
It was the culmination of a magical week in which Woods: a) eagled the 18th hole Saturday to take a one-shot lead into the final round; b) birdied the 72nd hole Sunday to tie Mediate at 1-under-par 283 and force an 18-hole playoff; and c) birdied No. 18 in the playoff to tie Mediate at even-par 71 and extend play into sudden death.
"This is probably the greatest tournament I've ever had," Woods said.
It probably ranks among the greatest played, not because the golf was so exquisite - it wasn't - but because of the number of times Woods outlasted a lesser opponent who refused to buckle.
Mediate hadn't won in six years. Back pain nearly drove him from the game. He even dabbled as a TV analyst. On top of everything, he arrived at the Open to find his driver had broken on the flight.
"I had a new one made, and it just isn't quite the same as the other one," Mediate said. "So it gave me a few surprises."
But if Woods was vulnerable for an upset, this was the week. He had arthroscopic knee surgery April 15, two days after placing second at the Masters, and hadn't played in a tournament since.
Woods grimaced in apparent pain on numerous shots and revealed yesterday that doctors warned him he could further injure the knee by playing. Did he?
"Maybe," said Woods, who left open the possibility of skipping the British Open next month.
Woods, who has won six Buick Invitational titles at Torrey Pines, was three strokes ahead after 10 playoff holes. But Mediate birdied Nos. 13, 14 and 15, the latter an in-your-face 18-footer after Woods hit a remarkable fairway bunker shot to within 10 feet.
With three holes to play, the world's 158th-ranked golfer had a one-shot lead.
"That hat trick was one of the most impressive runs I've ever seen on this golf course," Woods said. "But, you know, you keep playing."
Woods missed birdie chances on Nos. 16 and 17. He went to the 525-yard par-5 18th needing a birdie.
Woods put his second shot safely on the green and lagged his eagle putt to within 4 feet. After Mediate's 18-foot birdie try skimmed the cup, Woods made a 4-footer to force sudden death.
And so the marathon continued on No. 7, a 461-yard par-4. While Mediate went from a fairway bunker into the bleachers, Woods hit the green in regulation and two-putted for par. When Mediate missed his par attempt, it was over.
"I got what I wanted," Mediate said. "I had a chance to beat the best player in the world."
Woods, 32, became the sixth man to win at least three U.S. Open titles. He improved his record to 14-0 in majors in which he has held or shared the 54-hole lead. He also improved to 11-1 in playoffs.
It was his 65th victory overall, which broke a tie with Hogan for third place on the all-time list.
More important, he is just four majors behind Nicklaus' record of 18.
"He's who he is," Mediate said of Woods. "There's nothing left to say."