Like Michael Jordan on the buzzer or Serena Williams against the championship point, the great athletes of all time are determined by their ability to perform under the most intense pressure.
Think Didier Drogba in the Cup Final or Tom Brady at the Super Bowl. When the heat rises, so do they.
Their minds work differently. As others freeze, suddenly helpless with the tension, they improve.
But no one, perhaps in the history of the sport, has done this better than Tiger Woods.
The US Open returns to Torrey Pines this weekend for the first time since his legendary triumph 13 years ago, one of the sport’s most iconic victories.
And as Woods continues to recover from that horrific car crash in February, with recent videos showing him putting weight on his injured leg, it seems appropriate to look back on 2008.
For most of his career, Woods has been so much better at golf than the rest of the world that his biggest opponent has been his own body.
But as he showed to Torrey Pines in 2008, and 11 years later when he recovered at the 2019 Masters, his spirit and talent have always been stronger.
It was clear for most of the 2008 US Open that Woods was in great pain.
It turned out he was playing with two stress fractures in his shin and a knee that required surgical reconstruction a week later.
His former swing coach Hank Haney said, “I knew he was determined to win the US Open. I didn’t really see how it was logically possible that he had a chance, but I kept telling myself that Tiger said he was going to win, so he has to somehow believe that ‘he can succeed.
After grinning through the first 48 holes, Woods found some magic on the last nine holes of the third round.
“It was the most bizarre ride I have ever seen,” said Robert Karlsson, who competed with Woods that day.
Three strokes back, Woods made an eagle on the 13th, then bogeyed on the 14th, before classic tiger magic.
Call it luck, fate, or divine intervention – but there was a force that pulled his ball into the hole more than others that week.
He stabbed a terrible blow into the hole for a birdie on the 17th, although there was nothing hazardous about his eagle on the 18th.
Woods put in a 60-foot putt to take the 54-hole lead heading into the final day, a position he’s notoriously never lost to the Majors.
But he almost did. A messy final round, which included three abandoned shots on the first two holes and two more on the last nine, left him with a birdie on the 72nd hole to tie Rocco Mediate.
If Woods hadn’t been successful, this piece would likely remember Mediate’s astonishing achievement. He was ranked 158th in the world before the tournament.
Or if Lee Westwood birdieed on the 18th, we might look back on the day he finally ended his major drought.
But there’s a reason Westwood and Mediate both parried last and Woods birdie.
It certainly wasn’t the starting shot. Woods hung his in the bunker. It certainly wasn’t the layup either. Woods overcooked it in the rough, seemingly giving the title to Mediate or Westwood.
Somehow he got his third within 15 feet, cutting off a corner of the long tip and stopping it high up.
Mediate, who had previously posted his 283, watched Westwood and Woods line up long putts to take him to a play-off.
Westwood missed and stepped up Woods. It had nothing to do with ability, every occasional golfer would sometimes hole one at this distance.
It was a matter of nerves. Her father Earl once said to her, “I promise you will never meet someone as mentally strong as you in your entire life.” He didn’t, and he never will.
Woods learned to block everything from a young age. At any time, whatever the stakes, Woods could create an internal silence.
His extraordinary ability to focus and stay calm under pressure helped. As Westwood was pulling out his court, Woods was doing a pure blow. But this putt comes out for any golfer other than him.
“I knew he would get there,” Mediate said immediately afterwards. Everyone did it.
Mediate held firm in the 18-hole play-off. They both shot 71, but Woods edged his opponent on the first hole with sudden death to seal one of the most amazing wins in golf history.
There are plenty of books to read on Woods: sensational highs, humiliating lows, and many point to character flaws as to why it all happened like this.
Woods never allowed anyone to enter his complex world. Just as he could find “the zone” on a golf course, real life was rarely much different from the Masters.
Maybe that’s why his personal life fell apart in this way, but it’s also what helped him get back on his feet.
He’s returned to fame once before, despite his body and life in tatters just over three years ago.
And if anyone needs any hope that they can start over now, look no further than Torrey Pines.