Down to his last stroke, Woods holed a 12-foot birdie putt that curled into the right side of the cup on the 18th hole to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate, who could only watch on TV as Woods delivered another epic moment in an Open loaded with them.
Mediate, trying to become the event's oldest champion at age 45, two-putted for par from above the ridge for an even-par 71 to finish at 1-under 283, the first time since 2004 that someone broke par in a U.S. Open.
It looked as though it might be good enough when Woods and Englishman Lee Westwood, both one shot behind, hit into bunkers on opposite sides of the fairway on the 527-yard closing hole and had to lay up.
Westwood's 15-foot birdie putt never had a chance, losing speed and turning away. He shot 73.
From an unpredictable lie in the right rough, Woods gouged a wedge out to 12 feet right of the pin. He started to backpedal as the putt neared the hole, paused to make sure it was in, then clenched and pumped both fists toward him with his head to the sky.
"Unbelievable. I knew he'd make it," Mediate said as he watched from a scoring room.
Woods shot 73 and will be in a playoff for the third time in a major, this one 18 holes of stroke play today.
The 50,000 fans at Torrey Pines, thought they had seen it all during a most remarkable week. Now, they get a little bit more.
It was made possible by Woods, among the greatest clutch putters of all time, making a putt that simply couldn't miss.
"A little wobbly down there," he said of the poa greens, a grass that gets bumpier in the afternoon sun. "I played probably 21/2 holes outside right. Just take it back and make a pure stroke, because once it starts slowing down there ... you don't know what's going to happen. All I could control is my stroke."
The birdie concluded a week in which Woods shot 30 on his back nine Friday to get into contention, took the 54-hole lead Saturday with two eagle putts totaling 100 feet, and wobbled on a surgically repaired knee that often left him grimacing.
The knee, which sidelined him after the Masters Tournament until this week, didn't seem to bother him as much Sunday -- certainly not when he launched into the wild celebration.
"I took some things to kind of relieve that," Woods said of the soreness.
"Uh, that helps, too," he said.
Mediate made only one bogey over the final 13 holes, seizing on his best chance to win a major. He grazed the edge of the cup on a 15-foot birdie try at the 17th and hit a wedge too strong on the 18th, both pars keeping Woods in the game.
It will not be the first time they have tussled.
Mediate played with a 23-year-old Woods in the final round of the Phoenix Open in 1999, where he led by six shots and held on to win by three. It was one of his five PGA Tour victories.
"Battle royale," Mediate said of what awaits. "The thing that is most amazing is the man I'm going to play tomorrow has won 13 of these. It's amazing how much it takes. I gave all I had today, and I can't complain."
Woods has never lost a major when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, and he came close to throwing this one away on a series of questionable decisions and poor shots.
He tried to reach the 13th green in two from 291 yards when a birdie was not necessary. He pulled it into a hazard and walked off with bogey to slip one shot behind Mediate, who had birdied the 14th ahead of him.
Woods then laid up with an iron on the 14th, where the tees were moved up to make it play only 267 yards, hit a sand wedge 20 feet beyond the hole, and made par.
Standing over an all-or-nothing putt on the final hole, Woods again delivered.
It was reminiscent of the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he made a 6-foot birdie putt that broke both ways to get into a playoff against Bob May, the critical piece on his way to four consecutive majors.
"It feels very similar to what Valhalla felt like," Woods said. "If I didn't make that putt, I don't get to continue to keep playing. At best, I gave myself a chance to win the tournament tomorrow. And that's all I can ask for."
WHAT: U.S. Open playoff
CHANNELS: ESPN at noon, NBC-Ch. 26 at 2 p.m.