SAN DIEGO — Maybe we should end the debate right now, even before the final round of the U.S. Open begins. Maybe what Tiger Woods did on Saturday at Torrey Pines makes him the greatest athlete in sports, and the greatest golfer of all time.

Playing a tougher-than-calculus course in the most demanding event of the world's most difficult sport on a surgically repaired knee that caused him to buckle like a punch-drunk boxer after every hard swing, Woods left the golf world -- make that the sports world -- gasping in astonishment on a California-cool afternoon.

This is why you watch sports when you should be mowing the lawn, because you can't find drama, or charisma, or a sporting version of bravery, or sheer unpredictability like this in any other genre.

Trailing by five shots with six holes remaining, Woods made a 60-foot downhill putt for an eagle on 13, chipped in off the flagstick for a birdie on 17, and made a downhill 40-foot left-to-right putt for an eagle on 18 for the the tournament lead and left a crowd of about 54,000 howling.

Woods finished at minus-3, one shot ahead of Lee Westwood and two ahead of Rocco Mediate.

A Westwood victory today would give Europe its first U.S. Open champion since 1970. A victory by Mediate, an Everyman with a bad back, oversized irons and an old-school swing, would be a perfect father's day gift for a nation of soft-bellied hackers.

Everyone knows, though, that this is Tiger's tournament, as long as he can make it around the course without a crutch or a cart. "That shooting pain I get, it's always after impact," Woods said of playing with a sore knee. "So go ahead and make the proper swing, if I can.''

NBC analyst Johnny Miller compared Woods to Dodgers World Series hero Kirk Gibson, but Gibson needed only one swing to beat the A's and Dennis Eckersley. Woods walked about 5 miles and took 45 swings Saturday while playing on a bum knee, under pressure, and on a course that made some of his peers whimper. "It's more sore today," Woods said of his knee.

We're accustomed to Tiger Moments. We expect a few every year. Saturday, he gave us a handful in the last six holes.

The par-5 13th was supposed to be a three-shot hole in this tournament. Woods reached it in two and made his eagle putt on Friday. Saturday, he pushed his drive toward a concession stand on the right and launched his approach over the flagstick. It settled 66 feet away, on the back of the green.

Woods drained that putt as if it were a 3-footer, then celebrated with a double upper-cut fist pump.

On the 15th hole, Woods agonized after hitting his drive. He limped the rest of the round.

On 17, standing in the greenside rough and hoping "not to make a 6," Woods hit a high chip that rattled in off the flagstick. He stared in amazement for a moment, then bent over, laughing. "That," Woods said later, "was pure luck, man."

Then came 18, the reachable par-5 guarded by water. Woods altered his swing off the tee to protect his knee, hitting a "duck slice" to the fairway.

His second shot, a 5-wood, rolled to the back of the green. Woods aimed his putt way left, and the 40-footer dropped in the right side of the cup as Woods held his fist aloft. "It was all spontaneous," Woods said. "On 13 I went nuts and on 18, I was just like, 'Sweet.' I can't tell you what's coming. Whatever happens, happens."

We know what happens next. Woods is 13-0 in majors when holding at least a share of the lead entering the final round. If he can limp to victory today, he'll win his 14th major, leaving him four behind Jack Nicklaus.

He'll play one group ahead of Mediate, who jumped into a press conference to ask, "Mr. Woods, are you out of your mind, what you're doing out there?"

If Woods wins today, he'll join Willie Reed, Curt Schilling and Gibson among the most famous of the winning wounded, and Woods' victory will be the most impressive of the lot. He plays the least forgiving of sports, and he doesn't have any teammates to help.

"Just a boring round of golf," Woods said, grinning. "Seventeen pars and one birdie."

Actually, he blended a double bogey, three bogeys, a birdie, two eagles, and enough Tiger Moments to remind us why he is the greatest -- putter? golfer? athlete? -- of all time.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •