This was it. This was the moment when Tiger Woods would finally confirm himself as a human being, at last prove himself to be one of us, with our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our propensity to take premature consolation from what we had already decided was certain failure. It was 5.52pm, West Coast time, and the aura of Woods was just about to go down with that San Diego sun.
Torrey Pines was the eeriest place as Woods cupped his hands around his eyes and tried to find the line. Usually, it would be a given. The man who had never once lost a major in which he held the lead after 54 holes would send his Nike inextricably towards paint and stride into the play-off to wage his destruction on Rocco Mediate and a third US Open would be his. But now that exhilarated throng did not know what to think. The red shirt on a Sunday verified that, yes, that is Tiger Woods but the evidence of his erratic last four days suggested otherwise.
Nobody was aware then just how much pain Woods had experienced as he limped towards his 14th major and the one he was to call "my best ever". His grimace had, indeed, become the enduring image of the 108th US Open as he grabbed his left leg and doubled up when so many of his drives flew anywhere but on the fairway. Woods had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his knee nine weeks before and had not competed since. But surely he would not have teed it up in the most gruelling major in the game, unless he had been able to? As he crouched over his putt for a birdie on that 573-yard par five 18th, Woods did not let the thought invade his focus that should it dribble wide he would be a hero anyway. (In the aftermath the world was to discover that only two weeks before a consultant had studied X-rays of the two stress fractures Woods had suffered on his shin while practising too strenuously, too soon and begged him to spend four weeks on crutches.) No, that was not nearly good enough for Woods. Deep down, he accepted he was finished for the year and he simply could not accept the notion of his last shot being a losing shot.
Together with his caddie, Steve Williams, he had somehow extricated himself from a horrible lie with his third shot and told himself one thing only as he dragged his putter back – "make a pure stroke". The right-to-left break was not harsh, but the week had taken its toll on the greens and they tended to rough up the longer the day progressed. An indication of the putt's severity was given 30 minutes or so later when one of the club pros went back to the same point and had 11 goes before one dropped.
As Woods' putt set off it began to bobble and bounce on the bumps, leaving the ground at least five times. It seemed to be veering right and 12 inches out was certain to stay above ground. But then Woods took a few steps to his left, the ball apparently followed suit and it ducked in on the high side. As Tiger threw his head back and did his little double fist-pump thingy, Dan Hicks in the NBC booth screamed: "Expect anything different?" Rocco didn't. Watching on TV in the scorers' hut, he just smiled.
"Unbelievable," he said. "I knew he'd make it." There was a sense of finality in Mediate's statement. Rocco had lost his one chance of glory there and then. Except he hadn't. What made that 12-foot putt the "golfing moment of the year" was that it set up "the golfing day of the year". The 18-hole play-off, unique to the US Open, has long been pilloried as the way to stage an anticlimax. Not this time. More than 25,000 Californians swarmed in and Mediate, the good-natured veteran cast as the "Everyman", put up, as Woods described it, "one hell of a fight" before succumbing in a sudden-death shoot-out. It had taken 91 holes, and many of them in agony, but once again Woods had prevailed. The champion with one leg and that inexhaustible well of will.