The Loop

Strege: Rocco Gave This Open Its Character

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Eddie Merrins called it David and Goliath, which is a match with which he is familiar, even beyond his 5-feet-7 frame. The Little Pro, as Merrins is called, once again was backing David, a dubious proposition when Tiger Woods represents Goliath.

Merrins, the pro emeritus at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, mentored Bob May, who took Woods to overtime in the 2000 PGA Championship, and now he was tutoring another underdog, Rocco Mediate, who was attempting to topple Woods.

"He is a superb driver of the ball, which you have to be in a U.S. Open," Merrins said of Mediate, before adding an important caveat. "Unless you're Tiger Woods, who always finds a way."

Woods twice found a way to deflect defeat, which eventually discovered a moderately less defiant target. Down one with one to play on Sunday, Woods birdied 18 to force a playoff. Down one with one to play on Monday, he birdied 18 to force a sudden-death playoff. He finally won the U.S. Open when Mediate bogeyed the 19th overtime hole, No. 7, at Torrey Pines South Course.

It was Woods' 14th major championship and deprived Mediate of his first, but not before golf at large got better acquainted with him. It liked what it saw.

"He's good for the game," Merrins said, "and I think that's why he caught the imagination of the media and fans. He even got more applause on the first tee than Tiger."

Mediate, 45, made Woods earn his victory, which seems the best for which anyone can hope these days. Three consecutive birdies on the back nine (Nos. 13-15) gave him a one-stroke lead that is never enough against Woods.

"He's so hard to beat," Mediate said. "He's unreal. You can't get him. He is who he is."

So is Mediate, to whom this edition of the U.S. Open owes a debt. He gave it a dose of personality that together with his own grit gave it its own place in Open history.

"If they wanted a show," Mediate said, "they got one."

--John Strege