Rocco Mediate is the Buick Open champion no one expected.
He could not afford any bogeys in the final round Sunday, but made two. He failed to make birdie on the three easiest holes at Warwick Hills. In fact, he was never in the lead until a stunning turn of events on the 72nd hole.
And he is not Tiger Woods.
But with record crowds turning out to see Woods in his first tournament since winning the career Grand Slam, Mediate provided all the excitement. Trailing by one stroke on the 18th hole, Mediate made a 12-foot birdie putt and won the Buick Open when Chris Perry missed a 10-foot putt for his first bogey in 29 holes.
"I knew if I made birdie, I might get in a playoff," Mediate said. "I didn't expect this."
Neither did Perry, who was in control of his game for much of a drizzling day and appeared to have the tournament wrapped up with two crucial par saves on the closing holes. But he hit his drive into the rough, hit short of the green and pitched past the hole.
"We both played great," said Perry, who had a 68. "He just made one more putt."
Mediate birdied two of the last three holes for a 6-under 66 and finished at 268. He earned $486,000 for his fourth career victory, the last two with Woods in the field.
Given how much Woods has accomplished, that meant a little extra.
"I'm not going to beat him for the next 10 to 15 years," Mediate said of Woods. "But I can beat him this week. And someone else can beat him next week. But for a career? Forget it. Try something else."
Woods, meanwhile, was up to his old tricks. No, another amazing comeback was not in the works, but he took a chance with his health by trying to go for the green on the par-5 13th with his ball only inches behind a tree root.
He lashed at the ball, dropped the club and flexed his left hand, which was jolted when iron met wood.
"It actually hurt quite a bit for a while, then I shook it off," Woods said. "I was trying to hit the ball on the upswing, so I just chipped the top of the root. If I had been trying to swing down on it, I would have really been in trouble."
It was reminiscent of the Tour Championship last year, when Woods hit through a baseball-sized rock to get at his ball. Alas, Woods once again survived. The best player in the world is also one of the strongest - and the most stubborn.
"It's the only way I could get it close to the flag," Woods said.
Not that it mattered. He was six back to start the last round and finished with a 68, seven strokes out of the lead.
A birdie by Joe Ozaki on the 18th knocked Woods out of the top 10 for only the third time in his las 25 PGA Tour events. All three came in his first tournament after winning a major championship.
Hal Sutton, the only other player who had a serious chance of winning, played the back nine in even par and wound up with a 68, three strokes behind.
The victory was surprising even to Mediate, and not just because the way it ended. He played so poorly last week in The International that he said anyone watching would have been surprised he even played golf for a living.
And not many watched him at Warwick Hills, at least not until the end.
Most of the crowd jostled around the course to get a glimpse of Woods. What they missed was a brilliant display by Perry and Mediate in the final group. They accounted for birdies on all but two holes on the front nine, and were tied at 19 under going to the 12th.
"I knew it was going to be a battle," Mediate said. "It would have been a lot more exciting if more people had seen the front nine."
Perry regained the lead with a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 12, and extended it to two strokes when he chipped over a bunker and saved par on No. 15, and Mediate three-putted from 12 feet.
While the 18th was the decisive hole, the tournament might have turned on the par-5 16th. Desperate for a birdie or better, Mediate hit a driver from the fairway from 278 yards out with a perfect fade that allowed the ball to run up to the green 30 feet away.
Perry decided to hit a 3-wood, but pulled it badly in an awkward spot left of a bunker that guarded the flag. He had to make a 5-footer just to save par, while Mediate two-putted for his birdie to cut the lead to one.
"I thought that was the turning point," Perry said. "I felt like if I could birdie 16, the tournament would be over. He pulled off a great shot, and then I hit a really solid shot that just didn't cut."
While 17 players began the final round within six shots of the lead, not many of them could make a run or their bid simply started too late.
Such was the case of Woods, who made the turn in 35 as the guys he was chasing were making all the birdies. Still, he said his game was rounding into good shape for Valhalla, where he will try to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three majors in one season.
Phil Mickelson was four behind at the start of the round and hopeful of duplicating his comeback victory in the Colonial. But he, too, was stuck in neutral. By the time he got it together with a birdie-eagle-birdie stretch on the back nine, he was too far back.
Mickelson wound up with a 68 and tied for fourth with first- and second-round leader Woody Austin at 273.
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