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A new fan

The Baltimore Sun

No matter what happened in yesterday's U.S. Open playoff, it was going to be a great story. Either Tiger Woods would limp to an amazing victory in his first competition since knee surgery, or 45-year-old Rocco Mediate would climb up from triple-digit oblivion in the world rankings to make a little history of his own.

Or both. Who would have thought that the fifth round at Torrey Pines would turn into a 19-hole battle of wills that elevated the 2008 Open into one of the most exciting ever played?

"This is probably the greatest tournament I've ever had," Woods said on television after the round. And you would have to think that Mediate - even though he has won five PGA events - would agree.

OK, so everybody knew how it would end. We all knew it the moment Tiger sank that tourney-tying putt on the 18th hole Sunday. We all saw that machine-gun fist pump and felt a little sorry for the affable Rocco, who was sitting on his first major until Tiger pulled the chair out from under him. But that didn't stop us from lining up on one side or the other, a choice that probably says a lot about our respective personalities.

I was rooting for Rocco, of course, because that's what nice people do. They pull for the underdog. They imagine the huge trophy wing of Tiger's $40 million Florida estate and realize that he's going to place the replica trophy on a shelf with all the others and never look hard at it again. They think of Rocco walking downstairs every day for the rest of his life and looking at it and remembering that one shining moment when he was the best of the best - if only just that once.

Most people were probably pulling for Tiger, because he's the most popular athlete in the world and it wasn't like it was going to be a gimme. He was clearly limping during the media day for his tournament at Congressional two weeks ago, and he winced and grimaced through the first 72 holes of the Open.

The guy was obviously in pain, and he still dropped a 30 on the back nine Saturday and recovered from a dicey drive to birdie 18 Sunday.

And we're not talking that Paul Pierce carry-me-off-the-court-and-I'll-make-a-dramatic-entrance-a-little-later kind of knee soreness. We're talking about a surgically repaired leg that had to walk four miles uphill and down for five straight days and bear weight for 358 swings.

Still, I'm guessing the twinge that Rocco felt when that final putt landed Sunday was worse than any of those lightning bolts that shot through Tiger's knee, though he never let on. He conceded that he "knew" Tiger would make it, which didn't exactly add clairvoyance to a list of talents that include golf and world-class poker.

Maybe that's why I became a big Rocco fan over the past few days, because he wears his Everyman aura like a badge of courage. He isn't afraid to laugh at himself, and he's more likely to wave at that irritating guy snapping pictures behind the tee box than bark at him about proper golf etiquette. I hope we see him in the final group again soon.

That's no knock on Tiger, who played 91 holes on one leg to climb Mount Olympus yet again. Every time you think you've seen everything he's got, he takes it to a new level and shatters the ultimate golf dream of some lesser mortal. It's just a little harder to watch when that other guy has come so far only to win a nice check and a lifetime of instant mental replays that always turn out the same disappointing way.

There's no disputing Tiger's impact on golf and society at large, so it would be easy to just jump aboard the Tiger love train. People all over the world join in every day. He's a revelation, and he's a decent fellow, which is the only reason I had to think twice before throwing my support behind Rocco late Sunday afternoon.

It was always supposed to be Tiger's party. I mean, how many times did ESPN and NBC run that Earl Woods video montage Sunday and Monday? I'm guessing some of the other golfers have fathers, too, but they're just golfers. Tiger is golf. He has become the reason for the season, and I doubt that Rocco or anybody else (except maybe Phil) has a problem with that.

Yes, that was Rocco joining in the applause after Tiger hit a great second shot on 18 yesterday to begin unraveling what would have been one of the great upsets in golf history.

Facing the prospect of his dream denied, Mediate's first instinct was to put his hands together for a guy who has two major championships for every day in the week. Gotta respect that.

"They wanted a show," he said afterward, "and they got one."

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on most Saturdays and Sundays.

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