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Woods refuses to let pain win

SAN DIEGO – The bear hug was more survival than celebration, a spent embrace between Tiger Woods and his caddy 91 holes deep into this forever U.S. Open. Rocco Mediate's final putt had failed to fall on the playoff round's first extra playoff hole and finally this 14th major was Tiger's to embrace with a grip perhaps tighter and more appreciative than any other.

It wasn't just outlasting Rocco here with the midday California sun beating down, it wasn't even Woods' second consecutive 18th hole-overtime-forcing birdie, it wasn't even winning a mental and physical test of wills – 358 strokes to 359.

If it was just that, then maybe Woods wouldn't have been calling this his greatest major championship.

"I think this is the best," he said. "This week had a lot of doubt to it, to be honest with you."

This was about Woods simply not allowing himself to lose, perhaps because of how much he knows this one might wind up meaning. It wasn't just how difficult it was, it was the fear that this is how difficult it may be from here on out.

Tiger's knee is more troublesome than temporary. He all but admitted he reinjured it here, said he was shutting things down again for a while and might skip the British Open next month. It was a clear testament not just to the potential severity but that this may be worse than ever.

"I need to take a little bit of a break," he said. "It's been sore a while."

His doctors had told him not to play this week. They had said his left knee might not just wind up sore, but reinjured, perhaps for a long time, perhaps forever, perhaps making this wincing, limping Tiger Woods of Torrey Pines the norm.

"I'm not really good at listening to doctor's orders," Woods said.

He may be now. He was in drastic pain here, popping painkillers and in occasional agony after certain shots. For the first time, his career is facing an uncertain future. Suddenly this run at history might not be so simple, that one day passing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors, while still highly likely, might not be just a matter of time.

In the last eight majors, Woods has won four times and finished second three times. After three knee surgeries, and facing his second extensive layoff, that pace doesn't seem maintainable. He's still going to win, but it might not be the same.

Then again, this is Tiger Woods. All week here he kept finding ways to outlast the others. Monday, it was long past high noon here, long past when Rocco should have disappeared, long past when this should have been won and done, when he found himself for the third consecutive day on the final tee box trailing.

And once again he dug deep and delivered a bit of magic -- an eagle for the lead Saturday, birdies Sunday and Monday to extend play, to make sure this wasn't all going to be for naught.

By then Tiger had determined if he was going to risk the future for this major, if he was going to ignore those doctors, then he was going to win.

"Hey, I won this week, so it is what it is."

Woods would rather wear Adidas than discuss his health records. The concerned looks on his support team, the shrugged shoulders and the non-answers to simple questions says that this was something significant though. The surgery on meniscus in his left knee in April didn't work as well as hoped.

If it had, no one would have suggested he sit out this week. He would have been able to walk 18 holes before Thursday. He would have had practice sessions that weren't limited to "limp to the ball, hit five, limp back to the cart," as Hank Haney, his instructor, said.

One knee expert, while obviously not privy to the medical records, watched Woods this weekend and saw trouble.

"Just so we’re clear, I have not seen Tiger’s operative reports, and I am not saying he’s done," said Dr. Howard Luks, an orthopedic surgeon in Westchester, N.Y. who specializes in athletes. "But one has to imagine, with the amount of discomfort he’s experiencing this long after the surgery, that there are some degenerative symptoms or arthritic symptoms, or something that doesn’t respond well to pivoting, turning, and twisting.

"Arthroscopic surgery on someone to repair a meniscus (which is how the surgery has been described) when you don’t have a hyaline cartilage tear; that person should be back in eight weeks without any problem."

Woods is having problems, which suggests the more serious and more difficult to treat hyaline cartilage problem, according to Luks.

For his part, Woods just kept saying he didn't know. His various agents expressed the same. Haney kept grimacing and talking about how "I can't believe he won this tournament."

It was believable, though. Once this became a test of will as much as a golf tournament, the injury may have made Woods more difficult to beat. Whatever he lost physically, he gained mentally.

"You always try to use everything to your advantage, trying to be a rationalist, trying to feed off of it somehow."

Somehow he did. Every time he was down, he fought back. Every time he needed a miracle shot, he delivered. It took 91 holes to finish off Rocco, but if 191 was needed, then so be it.

"You can't get him," Rocco said, shaking his head in awe. "I thought I had him a while. I kept hitting good shot after good shot after good shot and so did he. If anybody in this world goes up against Tiger when he's at his best, they are going to lose, it's just that simple. I don't care who it is.

"Was he at his best this week?" Rocco continued. "He was pretty good. Obviously he's hurt. But where he's his best (is mentally)."

Mentally Woods looked exhausted at the end, hugging his caddy after playing that seventh hole for a sixth time in this tournament, after finally, on one leg, outlasting them all.

Soon they whisked him off in a golf cart with his wife, whisked him off to another major trophy presentation, whisked him off after the hardest, toughest and greatest victory of his career. And they whisked him off into a future that for once, even Tiger Woods looked a little concerned about.