Toronto, Canada – By Mark Lamport-Stokes
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Memories of one of golf's most thrilling contests were still sharply etched in Rocco Mediate's mind when he returned to picturesque Torrey Pines for this week's San Diego Open.
Nineteen months ago at the same venue on the Californian coastline, the affable American narrowly failed to pull off a stunning playoff victory over world number one Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open.
Against all the odds, PGA Tour veteran Mediate led Woods by one playing the last before being edged out at the 19th hole, and he had not returned to Torrey Pines until this week.
"It's really good to be back," Mediate, 47, told reporters on Tuesday while preparing for Thursday's opening round.
"Last year I was supposed to come but my knee had a little meniscus thing that cropped up at Phoenix the week before. But that's all good now -- and it's great to be back here.
"A lot of good memories already. It's still hard to believe that day actually happened. When I got to the putting green this morning, I said (to his caddie): 'This is a little different from a year-and-a-half ago.' It was really cool."
One thing that has not changed for Mediate is the level of attention he gets from the golfing public, who were enthralled by his gutsy display against Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open.
"They keep telling me how much they enjoyed it, saying: 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' And I'm like, what did I do?" Mediate said. "Well, now I know.
"But as we were playing that course, we had no idea what the hell was going on in the rest of the world. It was insane, especially when the match turned sideways."
Mediate, then 45 and aiming to eclipse compatriot Hale Irwin as the oldest U.S. Open champion, came from three down after 10 holes in his gripping duel with Woods.
He reeled off three consecutive birdies from the 13th to lead by one before his opponent forced sudden-death with a two-putt birdie at the 18th where Mediate could only par.
While Mediate is back at Torrey Pines for the fourth event on the 2010 PGA Tour, Woods is a notable absentee for the second year in a row.
Twelve months ago, the 14-times major champion was sidelined while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery.
Woods usually launches his season at the San Diego event, where he is a six-times winner, but this year he is again missing while he takes an indefinite break from the game.
In hiding since admitting last month he had cheated on his wife, Woods has given no timetable for his likely return to competition.
"It's really different," Mediate said. "Any time he's not in the field, it's obviously not the best field we have. You always want your best guy."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)