Charlie Riedel, Associated Press
Tiger Woods, left, is congratulated by Rocco Mediate following his U.S. Open championship victory after a sudden-death playoff Monday afternoon.

SAN DIEGO — Tiger Woods needed a 19th hole to win the U.S. Open playoff. To get that far, though, he had to beat No. 18 at Torrey Pines — not once, not twice, but three times.

An eagle on Saturday to take the lead.

A birdie on Sunday to force a playoff.

Another birdie Monday to take it to sudden-death.

That's 4 under on the par-5 hole over the final three days. Runner-up Rocco Mediate made three pars. That four-stroke difference in a tournament decided by one might best explain why, as Mediate put it, "he's so hard to beat, obviously."

Woods conceded he felt pretty much like anyone would if they were trailing, stepping up to the 18th tee box, needing to make something happen.

"It's pressure, there's no doubt about it," he said. "I was nervous. But that means you care. You can try to use that energy as best you can to heighten your focus and then get in the right situation, and it worked out great for me this week."

The credit, of course, goes to Woods, but also give credit to the USGA for setting up a course that delivered one of the most exciting majors ever.

Long accused of concocting impossible conditions that produce unwatchable shows with no drama, the keepers of the game did two good things this week in (a) resisting the temptation to lengthen the par-5, 573-yard 18th — or shorten it and turn it into a par-4; and (b) shaving down the area between the green and the pond that fronts it to add some risk-reward to what turned out to be the most important shots of the tournament.

Woods hit his drive on No. 18 about 340 yards on Monday.

Which made the rest fairly predictable, at least in Mediate's mind.

"Standing there on the 18th fairway, he's not going to hit the ball in the water," Mediate said. "He's more than likely not going to miss the green to the right. He's going to hit a beautiful shot. How you counter that is to play the best you can."

Mediate played the best he could, and he at least put the pressure on Woods; he was leading when Woods reached 18 the last two days.

Yet for as much as what Woods did, it's also what Mediate failed to do that played into his heartbreaking loss.

On Sunday, he drove into the rough, on Monday into the bunker. Those shots basically forced the lay-up choice that he may have gone for anyway; at 274.9 yards, Mediate has the 174th-ranked driving distance on the PGA Tour. No crime there. But his approaches after the lay-ups were pedestrian — not pin-seeking stuff — and the fact that he missed birdie putts of 30 and 20 feet the last two days wasn't a huge surprise.

Not many people make those putts under that kind of pressure. At least people not named Woods.

The eagle on Saturday will go down as the closing chapter of one of Tiger's all-time great rounds. It was a 30-footer that snaked across and in, giving him an unexpected one-shot lead over Lee Westwood and two over Mediate.

Woods needed the 12-footer on Sunday to force the tie with Mediate, and when that dropped he pumped both fists and celebrated like he'd already won.

On Monday, it was a prototypical knee-knocker, nothing fancy, that kept him alive for one more hole. He was four feet away and didn't quite believe it when he looked at the ball, the hole and the green and saw absolutely no break. He called in caddie Steve Williams to take a look — not part of his usual routine.

"He read it and says, 'I can't see anything, either,"' Woods said. "It's dead straight. So OK, here we go, our tournament relies on a dead-straight putt for four feet."

From the muni to the 90th hole of the U.S. Open, those dead-straight four-footers are never as easy as they seem. But Tiger did what we all should do — he committed, "put some extra gas on the putt" and watched it drop.

Next stop, the seventh hole, which was really the 19th hole of the day, the 91st of the week. No offense to Mediate, but maybe it was elementary from there. He had Woods on the ropes three times on 18 and couldn't put him away.

"The guy's impossible. I thought I had him for a while. I kept getting good shot after good shot after good shot," Mediate said.

"And so did he."